Adam Silver

No rest for the weary: The NBA becomes an illogical idiom

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Sometimes NBA teams want to rest their players. The NBA does not like it.

Following high-profile instances of an NBA team resting it star player(s), NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to the league’s board of governors. The memo describes the ways in which this practice of resting players is bad for the league:

Decisions of this kind … can affect fans and business partners, impact our reputation and damage the perception of our game. With so much at stake, it is simply not acceptable for governors to be uninvolved or to defer decision-making authority on these matters to others in their organizations.

In other words, the decision to rest players is bad for business and unfair to fans. Furthermore, the players don’t need the time off. Resting players in the absence of injury merely contributes to the perception that the quality of the NBA product has wavered and lends credence to the notion that current players do not measure up to players of the past.

While most, Adam Silver included, seemingly do not dispute the right of teams to rest players when deemed necessary, it is the timing of the rest which becomes problematic.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers sit LeBron James during a Sunday night game or when both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs rest their star players for a Saturday night game broadcast on national television, it’s a problem. Ratings for the game are bound to be lower than expected, resulting in decreased advertising revenue. Fans are robbed of perhaps their sole opportunity to see Steph Curry play in person.

 

A few different solutions have been offered to this issue. Build more off-days into the NBA schedule. Make healthy, resting players go through every other aspect of NBA game day. Give refunds to fans and business partners if players are rested. Cut minutes-per-game instead of sitting the player for a full game. Or, if you’re going to sit a player, sit them at home.

In essence, the argument is to take the game out of the hands of those actually controlling the outcome, the coaches and players.

But there is no need for these “solutions” because the underlying arguments are illogical. They make no sense.

First, NBA players do not miss more games now than in the past. According to data from Man-Games Lost, the total number of games missed has been relatively steady over the past decade. NBA players are healthier than ever and better than ever.

Second, the NBA needs healthy players. Increased availability and access to biometric data mean teams now have a better understanding of what players need rest and when. Rest comes prior to injury, not following. And numerous medical studies show that cutting activity is not the same as taking a day off. Physiologically, a days rest is healthy and sometimes necessary.

Third, it may be unfair to fans if they are forced to miss LeBron James or Steph Curry. But nobody is making them go to games. They get no guarantee. What if James plays and is hurt in the first minute of the game, missing the remaining 47 minutes? Is that really different? Plus, on Seat Geek you can get a ticket for Warriors vs. Cavs on March 29th for $74. Not a pittance, but reasonable.

Finally, the NBA is understandably concerned with the business side of this practice. Resting stars means lower television ratings. Lower television ratings means fewer advertising dollars. Fewer advertising dollars means less money for the network to purchase NBA rights. Which means less money for the NBA. Except teams have been resting players for yearsratings are up, and the league just signed a record TV deal a year ago.

The NBA can worry about its business partners, the fans, and perception of the league, but these troubles ring hollow. The league is healthier than it has ever been because the product is as good as it has ever been. The “solution” to this rest problem is apparently to change the product?

Coaches and players want to win. Fans want them to win. Winning creates revenue. Rest helps them win.

“Problem” solved.

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You really want us to believe “Superteams” are bad for the NBA?

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The NBA Board of Governors met in Las Vegas earlier this week and approved rule changes to be implemented this upcoming season. The change which has gained the most attention thus far is not really a change so much as an alteration. This last season off the ball fouls, or “Hack-a-Shaq”, in the last two minutes of the 4th quarter and overtime resulted in one free throw and retention of the ball on the side. This more stringent penalty is now applied in the last two minutes of every quarter as a result of the rule change. While this change may somewhat please some NBA owners, fans and television partners, nobody really should care about this half-measure because it doesn’t really change anything. But something was said they may actually matter: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hates the Golden State Warriors.

Okay, not really the Golden State Warriors per se. Adam Silver hates the idea of the Golden State Warriors. But he also hates the idea of the late 1990s-early-2000s Los Angeles Lakers, the 2010-14 Miami Heat, the current Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs of the past decade and a half, the Boston Celtics of the mid-2000s, and maybe even the 1990s Chicago Bulls. According to Silver, these “super teams” are bad for the NBA and he would seemingly like to legislate them out of the next collective bargaining agreement. Except he’s wrong about super teams and the fundamental nature of the NBA limits their prevention. So what was actually said by Adam Silver?

“Just to be absolutely clear, I do not think that’s ideal from a league standpoint…I don’t think it’s good for the league.”

What Silver really wants is parity. Having any team go through the regular season and into the playoffs as prohibitive favorites reduces fan interest. Most importantly, it reduces television ratings. At least theoretically. In reality television ratings are driven by superstars and great teams. This past season the Golden State Warriors regularly provided the NBA with its highest ratings for nationally broadcast games, despite many of their games being the late West Coast game. The 2016 NBA Finals with two super teams just had the highest ratings since the 1998 NBA Finals featuring the Chicago Bulls, narrowly beating last year’s NBA Finals featuring two super teams.

Television ratings for the Cleveland Cavaliers jumped when LeBron James resigned in 2014. Also as a consequence of this signing the ratings for Miami Heat games declined. Oklahoma City Thunder games saw a decrease in viewers when Kevin Durant was injured for much of the 2014-15 season. As the Golden State Warriors have acquired great players and gotten better as a team their television ratings have increased. Great players make great teams make great ratings.

“I’m not making any predictions, but there’s no question when you aggregate a group of great players, they have a better chance of winning than many other teams.”

This is true. More great players will usually give you a better chance of winning a championship. But the problem with this statement is that you need great players to win a championship. Players, plural. In the past 20 years a total of two teams have won an NBA championship without multiple great players, the 2004 Detroit Pistons and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. And in each case you can make an argument that those victories were the result of internal problems with the opponent as much as the prowess of the victor.

“For me, part of it is designing a collective bargaining agreement that encourages the distribution of great players throughout the league.”

And how do you do that? Teams can already offer more money to their own free agents. Now you want to punish players for not being greedy and taking less money? Do you simply make that monetary difference even more significant? Or do you just start to tell players they can’t sign with specific teams because that team already has too many good players? I’m sure limiting the ability to player’s to make their own decisions is something the NBA Player’s Union is keen on.

But Silver “absolutely respect a player’s right to become a free agent and, in this case, for Kevin Durant to make a decision that he feels is best for him.”

The fact that you made this speech and expressed this opinion means, no, you don’t.

“I think it is critically important that fans in every market have the belief that if their team is well managed, that they can compete.”

The Golden State Warriors are well-managed. It’s why they were able to sign Kevin Durant. The Miami Heat are well-managed. It’s why they were able to sign LeBron James in 2010. The San Antonio Spurs are well-managed. It’s why they’ve been able to be so successful for so long. And so on and so on. The NBA has an institutional problem with the management of their teams. It’s not that small-market teams can’t compete, it’s that many of them don’t. Durant didn’t leave OKC because they’re in a small market or because they didn’t compete, it’s because they competed for so long and never got over the hump. Further limiting the movement of players isn’t going to make teams any more “well-managed”. In fact, it limits the ability of teams to effectively manage.

The last problem inherent with this point of view is where to draw the line. How many great players constitutes too many? What constitutes a great player? Exactly what method of player acquisition is out of bounds? Were the Golden State Warriors a “super team” last year? If so, their best players were drafted by the team. Same as the San Antonio Spurs. Same as the Oklahoma City Thunder. Is it okay to draft great players but not to sign them as free agents? If Kevin Durant wins no championships with the Warriors does that make his signing okay in hindsight? Where is the line?