Take a Load Off
As the NBA is set to embark on the start of its 77th season, it seems like a good time to reflect on where the sport stands today and where it may be headed years into the future. On the one hand, the National Basketball Association seems to have quite a rosy prospect, as it has become the fastest growing sport in North America. Revenues have steadily climbed over the past two decades, going from 2.5 billion dollars in 2001 to a whopping 10 billion in 2022 with nearly 3 billion of that being nothing but pure, pocket-lining profit. Meanwhile, salaries for the players have witnessed a corresponding meteoric rise, reaching an average of $9.7 million for the 2023–2024 season, making NBA players the highest-paid athletes in any team sport in the world. That’s a whole lot of money for playing a sport. But as much as that may be a hefty sum for playing your sport, it’s even more for NOT playing. And in the last several years, there’s been a whole lot of not playing going on, and that is an issue the NBA needs to address if the sport is to continue to grow.
My son has been a LeBron James fan since the day he started watching basketball. For the life of me, I can’t fathom why, but that’s his perspective so I just roll with it. I guess I ascribe it to the fact that he never got to see real greatness in the form of Michael Jordan, but we’ll come back to that one later in the piece. For now, suffice it to say that he was ecstatic when my dad got him tickets to see Lebron’s Los Angeles Lakers play the Denver Nuggets here at Ball Arena for Christmas last year. For weeks, all he could talk about was getting to see Lebron play in person. The kid even refused to wear a jacket on a sub-freezing night in February lest it cover up the jersey he wore to the game. But as we settled into our seats, we heard two guys behind us venting their frustration that neither James nor his All-Star teammate Anthony Davis would be playing in the game. Both were taking the night off for what has come to be known in the NBA as “load management”, the term players use to justify not playing some games for the purpose of providing rest over the course of an 82 game season. My son was devastated. He has not worn that Lebron jersey since.
The fact is that taking games off has become commonplace in the modern NBA, and it is starting to have a highly detrimental effect on the quality of the product on the court. Over the 2020s, NBA All-Stars have missed an average of 14.4 games per season, up from 9.7 the previous decade and 6.2 in the rough-and-tumble ’90s, when guys like Michael Jordan played. The NBA has had an 82 game season since 1961, but somehow modern athletes cannot seem to hack the same playing demands their counterparts endured when the game was infinitely more physical and demanding on the body. Even though contemporary officiating and a prioritization on 3-point shooting has minimized the rough play and physical fouls of earlier eras, players continue to suggest that their bodies are not capable of withstanding the wear and tear of playing 48 minutes of basketball, 82 nights a year, you know like it says in the massive contracts they sign and are happy to collect the full amount of. Clearly, these guys aren’t hockey players. The hockey season has essentially the same number of games over the same span of time, but you don’t hear about them taking nights off, even though they play a sport with real, genuine contact. Hmmmm…..
NBA analyst Josh Eberley has labeled this the single greatest issue for the league going forward, and he is not alone. Fans disappointed by purchasing expensive tickets to see stars that don’t end up playing in the game have begin to push back, boycotting a league they used to love. Joe Dumars, executive vice-president of basketball operations for the NBA, who was himself one of the greatest players of the 1980’s and 90’s, has suggested that the general practice of resting players to prevent future injury and extend careers is “no longer supported by scientific data” held by the league. In other words, this not playing nonsense is complete and utter bullshit. Or as NBA great turned colour-analyst Charles Barkley puts it, “This is a joke and a disgrace that we’re paying guys $50, 60 million a year to play basketball a few days a week.” Oh and getting back to that whole Jordan/Lebron comparison: MJ played in all 82 regular season games nine times. He never missed a single game from March 19, 1995 to June 14, 1998. Lebron has played all 82 games just once in his 21 year career, averaging fourteen missed contests per year. He hasn’t played more than 67 games since 2018.
While no one should be encouraging players to compete through injuries, especially when it comes to long-term impacts on the longevity of their careers, the NBA clearly has an issue that needs to be addressed. Although the league adopted new rules for resting players that go into effect this year, these are merely superficial remedies that will not go far enough in curbing what has become a cultural issue throughout the NBA. The fact is that players have come to see their right to make a 10 million dollar salary to play a game they supposedly love as an entitlement rather than a privilege. They forget that those lofty salaries exist because of the fans who come to see them play. If fans like me and my son stop attending games because of moments like the one we had last year, if they stop buying the jerseys and other merchandise, those ever-increasing revenues suddenly dry up, as do the salaries they currently enjoy. Players would be wise to recognize that they get paid for 82 games and owe the fans each and every one of them that they are physically capable of playing.
Interestingly, the Lakers will be opening the regular season tonight against the defending champion Denver Nuggets. Maybe Lebron will deem it a game worthy of actually playing in.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com