Golden State coach Steve Kerr wants a shorter NBA season. Milwaukee All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo does not. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver isn’t sure what the right answer is.
Such is the conundrum with the NBA’s ongoing battle with load management — often the fancy way of saying resting — and finding ways to optimize player health, performance and availability. While there is a consensus that the league has problems, there is no consensus on how to solve those problems.
Over the last week, The Associated Press asked a cross section of 48 players, coaches, owners and executives if the NBA should abandon its 82-game, 170-day blueprint of a regular season for something with either fewer games or more days in the season to allow for more rest.
The results were as muddled as the issue itself: 40% said they would simply go along with whatever the league decides is best, 35% said they don’t want the current format changed, and the remaining 25% wants changes.
How fans will be affected is one concern. Money is another.
“I think if you want to get the best player availability, shortening the season may be in the best interest of everybody involved,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “But that’s also a lot of money being lost — TV games, money. Let’s not forget: This is a business.”
With the All-Star Weekend in the books and regular-season play resuming Thursday, there are still 19 players with a chance to play in 82 games this season. There were only five who did it last season, 11 who played every game in a 72-game 2020-21 season and 14 who played all possible games in the COVID-19-interrupted 2019-20 season.
It used to not be so uncommon for players to play every game, or at least almost every game. A decade ago, in 2012-23, there were 28 players making 82 appearances. A decade before that, it was 46. John Stockton played in 82 games 16 times for Utah and missed 22 games in 19 seasons; A.C. Green played 82 games 14 times in his career. Among players currently active, nobody has logged more than five 82-game seasons.
Antetokounmpo doesn't want change: “I think 82 games is perfect," he said.
Minnesota guard Anthony Edwards said seeing players sometimes take a game to rest is the thing he dislikes most about the league. His rationale: Somebody might have bought a ticket to just that one game, and feelings can be hurt if the player they want to see most takes the night off.
“Just play, man. If you’re 80%, you’ve got to play,” said Edwards, 21, a first-time All-Star. “I don’t like all the sitting, missing games and stuff. These people might have enough money to come to one game. And that might be the game they come to and you’re sitting out. I take pride in trying to play every game because I don’t know, it might be one fan that has never seen me play, and I’m trying to play.”
Kerr is a proponent of a 72-game season, and has said so this year after some games where the reigning champion Warriors have given their stars — the Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green types — a night off because the team feels it was in the best interest of their health.
He also knows a 72-game season would come with a price. Literally, a big price. Shaving 12% of games from the schedule would, in theory, shave 12% of revenue opportunities. And while it's not likely owners would embrace making less money, players probably wouldn’t go for that, either.
“I feel terrible for fans who buy tickets who are expecting to see someone play and they don’t get to see that person play,” Kerr said. “It’s a brutal part of the business. That’s why I’m going to continue to advocate for 72-game seasons. And I know that means less revenue, but at some point, I think there just needs to be an awareness from everybody involved.”
At least one other coach is listening to Kerr, loud and clear.
“I do think in an ideal world that the season would be shorter," Milwaukee's Mike Budenholzer said. “We would space the games out, give the players more recovery time, hopefully more health. And I think one of the big points of emphasis is for the fans, more player availability. But it’s a complicated equation."
One potential tweak that some prefer is the idea of not squeezing 82 games into 170 days, which basically means a game every other day. Building even another week into the schedule could allow for more multiday breaks.
The NFL and NHL have bye weeks. Minnesota coach Chris Finch wonders if the NBA should do the same.
“I think what we need to do as a league is remove all the obstacles for guys not playing,” Finch said. “Back-to-backs seem to be a big one. They’ve done a really good job over the last years of trying to limit back-to-backs, make them more intelligent if you will. It doesn’t seem to me that we’re that far off of being able to eliminate them altogether, whether that’s fewer games or, heck, the season’s so long right now anyway, what’s another week or two?”
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are currently in talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, with both sides hopeful that it’ll get done by next month — which hardly guarantees anything, but it's a reason for optimism.
There is a strong chance that an in-season tournament, something Silver has wanted for years, could be part of the NBA calendar as early as next season. But there is no talk of that changing the format for the season; teams have been told that, if the tournament is added, they’ll get an 80-game schedule this summer with two more games — those matchups based on how they fare in the opening portion of the tournament — to be added later.
“I think part of the realization these days in playing in this league is that this is a year-round pursuit now,” Silver said. “I think part of injury avoidance means how players are treating their bodies year-round, how teams are interacting with players year-round, and using the best data to conclude what will allow players to stay healthy and on the floor as long as possible.
“We think we can do a better job,” he added, “but we don’t have a specific solution yet."
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