One of the hottest debates riding the tidal waves of sports talk shows is whether NBA teams should be allowed to rest star players without receiving a fine. It’s a complicated discussion, one that dangerously mixes the interests of player health and entertainment value.
This has been building up into a trend over the last couple of years, initiated by the aging Spurs teams with Tim Duncan and now culminating into a year of spoiled NBA blockbusters (Spurs vs. Warriors, Cavaliers vs. Clippers).
The motivation is simple: teams that are in championship contention don’t want to risk injury to their key players. It’s the consequences that are a little more complex.
The fans who buy tickets to these games are paying a premium price ahead of time for games that are expected to showcase the NBA’s elite teams. But on several occasions this year, those fans have ended up having to settle for watch the NBA’s elite teams’ backups battle it out. ESPN and other outlets have granted numerous interviews to fans who have traveled across several states to see their favorite players, only to learn that they wouldn’t get to see them on the court.
However big of a dent resting stars puts into the league’s entertainment value, there is no doubt that it is beneficial to the players and their respective teams—who are focused on the playoffs long before they start.
So the NBA has to ask itself the same question it has previously confronted with the Hack-a-Shaq rules: Should teams be able to implement a strategy for competitive advantage even if it takes away from the entertainment value of the league?
Apparently, Adam Silver’s answer to that question is no—he has threatened what he called “significant penalties” for teams that rest their starters. But here is what he gets wrong: the real problem with this dilemma is the fact that it arose in the first place.
The NBA is an entertainment product, certainly. But is it not an entertainment product where teams are essentially competing against one another? Isn’t that competitive battle what makes sports so intriguing?
I don’t think there is anyone who will argue against that. So then, if the NBA relies on competition to make it interesting, then how is it that we have gotten to a point where the struggle of besting other teams has become separated from the actual playing of the game?
The problem of teams resting their starters is not actually a team issue at all—it starts up top. The bulky 82 game season has resulted in the de-valuing of individual games, to the point where it is now more beneficial to save energy for the playoffs rather than actually play the games that are supposedly in place to figure out who the best teams are.
It’s simple. The 82 game season is not getting the job done.
It could be argued that we already have a good idea of who the championship contenders are before the season even starts, but it’s undoubtedly set in stone by the 50 games mark. Nothing dramatic is going to change in those final two months of the season.
Those excess 32 games are the basketball equivalent of “filler episodes,” just thrown in to give fans something to watch while they wait for the finale. If the league was a TV show, it would almost definitely be dissed by the critics as bad writing.
The NBA’s job (and the commissioner’s job) is to make sure that the 30 NBA teams are thrown into an environment where they are competing against each other in a way that is entertaining to those of us on the outside looking in. If the teams themselves are being told to present themselves as entertainment products, then we have watered down the intensity of the game.
It is true, of course, that there is a lot of revenue on the line. Cutting 32 games of ticket sales is by no means the clear, easy choice as a business.
But Adam Silver has no right to tell teams that they must sacrifice their competitive ambitions to better the quality of the league if he is not willing to change the flawed format that has led them to rest players in the first place.