Why do you go to basketball games? Is it to see who will win? Or to watch the action, and have a good time?
Most of the time, the NBA appeals to both groups. It’s a fascinating competition, the kind of sport we at The Tribune can dedicate two beat writers to. There are matchup questions, coaching chess matches, and competitive one-on-one battles. But it’s also undeniably fun: a fast-paced sport with feats of top-tier athleticism. Mascots and cheerleaders entertain. Even after losses, many fans are glad they went to the game. Happy fans tend to come back and pay more money.
The problem is when the goals of “winning” and “making sure the fans have a good time” collide. This rarely happens, but when it does, it becomes seemingly the only topic of discussion, with such gravitational force that every other topic seems to revolve around it. The tanking debate is a good example: at the basement of Sixers non-competitiveness, some weeks it seemed like no one could talk about anything else.
This is where we are with the load management debate in October 2019. The issue: Kawhi Leonard has sat out two nationally-televised games, including one against the Jazz last week. This makes competitive sense for the Clippers. Leonard has tendinopathy in his knee, which means that his knee starts to hurt if he plays in too many games. In fact, we’ve even seen Leonard start to limp after playing a lot of minutes, including down the stretch in last year’s playoffs. He is one of the best three players in the NBA, so long as his knee doesn’t hurt too much, so the Clippers want to do what it takes to keep him that way. Hence, we get load management; Kawhi doesn’t play back to backs.
But it also is undeniably true that people are less satisfied with their basketball games when Leonard doesn’t play in them. Ratings go down. Clipper fans were mad that they bought expensive Staples Center tickets only to not watch the team’s best player. Last week, some fans in Utah were disappointed not to be able to watch Kawhi work. And people being upset they spent money on your product isn’t a great way to grow that product.
Now, many have made the case that the fans are foolish. Load management likely means that Leonard will play in more games in the 2019-20 season than if he were to try to play all 82 and have to be shut down midway for a few weeks. But people rarely have that kind of long-term outlook when they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on a couple of hours of entertainment.
And so they’ll come up with all sorts of different ways to be angry. Many will say that their favorite players of yesteryear played all 82 games, and that Leonard is soft for needing to sit. This is a point that seems reasonable at first, but then you watch how NBA basketball is played now, and it’s not very logical. John Hollinger pointed this out: “That Michael Jordan used to play 3,000 minutes a year is irrelevant, because a game minute in 1989 is not equal to a game minute in 2019. The pace-and-space era produces a lot more accelerations and decelerations for the 10 players on the court.”
Yes, players were more upper-body physical back in the day, but there was so much more standing around that people’s knees and ankles were a lot better off. Back then, team management was also more concerned with making money than winning championships in many cases; now, nearly everyone would lose fans for a few years to win a title.
When the league’s competitive goals and its fan happiness goals collide, this is a critical enough problem that something should be done. Tanking became an issue in the NBA, and the NBA took steps to make tanking less valuable from a competitive point of view. Likewise, they should take steps to prevent load management.
But the step they should take isn’t “force the teams to play the players.” That could result in longer-term outages, fake injuries, and all sorts of oddities used to get around whatever fines or other punishments the NBA would implement. Instead, they need to address the root source of the problem: that 82 games compressed into six months is too strenuous to keep many of the league’s best players healthy.
Since back-to-backs seem to cause the biggest problems — and I can tell you from both observation and experience that they are incredibly onerous on everyone involved — let’s find a way to get them out of the game altogether. Yes, they’ve been reduced, I want them gone.
Does that mean playing 66 games instead of 82? That would work. It would also cost the NBA 10-20% of their revenue, at least immediately, though there could be increased attention on each individual game — the NFL makes a lot more money. Or does that mean playing the 82-game schedule in seven months, instead of six? That might be an accomplishable solution, but also pushes the season up against international basketball events like the FIBA World Cup or the Olympics.
Regardless of what we do, we should recognize that the basketball played in the NBA has changed. It’s time to change the schedule along with it.