Imagine you’re the world’s biggest LeBron James fan, but you live in Los Angeles.
When the NBA schedule is released, you plop down serious coin to see the Cavaliers take on the Clippers at Staples Center. It’s on a Saturday night, you don’t have to work — perfect, right?
When King James and the defending champion Cavs got to L.A. for a well-hyped primetime tilt against the Clippers, he promptly put his feet up on an ottoman set up in front of the bench and sipped coffee while his team got blown out by 30.
NBD, just LeBron James sippin’ some coffee on his day off
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 19, 2017
OK, there wasn’t an ottoman. But there was coffee. Seriously. But you did get to see Kay Felder explode for 10 points, so you can always tell the grandkids that.
For the second straight week, ESPN/ABC’s Saturday night NBA showcase had been foiled by the three organizations with a genuine chance to win the NBA title this year. Last Saturday, it was the Cavs sitting James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The week before, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs started lineups that would have been iffy in the preseason.
It’s all in the name of rest. Teams with a chance to win a ring are more interested in the grind of the postseason than that of the regular season — and that doesn’t exactly jive with the television networks or the commissioner’s office.
Adam Silver has promised discussion and hinted at significant penalties for teams resting players without providing what he termed “notice to the league office, the opponent and the media.”
How did we get here? I understand America’s adoption of the “work smarter, not harder” philosophy, but what’s going on in the NBA is such a departure from what we’ve seen in the past. Players of today openly complain about the rigorous travel schedule and belly-ache about back-to-back contests.
This year’s Phoenix Suns have 14 sets of back-to-back games on their schedule. I’m not saying they’re easy to navigate, especially when the games are in different cities, which is the norm. But I don’t think players know how good they have it compared to the men who helped blaze the trail for their entitlement.
Take the 1992-93 Suns, for instance. In the best season in franchise history, the Suns played 106 games, counting a grueling 24-game postseason that ended in a six-game loss to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. The Suns had 22 sets of back-to-backs, including one in the second round of the playoffs in a series against San Antonio.
Dan Majerle played in every single game. He ranked fourth in the NBA in minutes played that season, with 3,199, and followed it up by logging an astronomical 1,071 more minutes in the playoffs — the second-highest total in NBA postseason history.
In the 44 games the Suns played back-to-back, Majerle averaged 39 minutes per contest. Twice, in the back end of the NBA’s version of the double-header, he played a full 48 minutes.
He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Majerle’s philosophy is far different from what is currently happening in the league. Good teams are resting their stars in primetime games with an eye on the postseason, while non-playoff teams are benching their best players to develop young talent, which is, in most cases, an alias for increasing their draft lottery odds.
“As a player, I would be beside myself if they told me to sit down,” Majerle said on Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM on March 17. “I never wanted to come out of a game. I hated it when I came out of a game — let alone miss a game.”
Majerle was one of 42 players around the league to play in all 82 games in the ’92-’93 season. Eight of them ended up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Last season, only 18 players league-wide saw action in every game. Only three of them — Houston’s James Harden, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, then of Atlanta — were All-Stars.
Then there’s the expansion Suns of 1968-69. Johnny “Red” Kerr’s team played 82 games in 156 days. They played 15 sets of back-to-back games, five times they played games on three consecutive nights and twice (yes, twice) they played four straight days! If that happened today, there would be lawsuits and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts would lead an angry mob with pitchforks and burning torches to the schedule maker’s office. Of course, that mob would be made up of role players and D-league wannabes, because storming an office is pretty taxing.
In one ridiculous 18-day stretch late in their inaugural season, the expansion Suns played 12 games in 10 cities.
That was common in the NBA of the late 60s, yet that season, 22 players played in every game. The league had 14 teams.
I don’t want to sound like the “get off my lawn” guy, but get off my lawn! There’s no other way to put it — players of today are soft compared to the men who came before them. Despite having superior training techniques, dietary habits, equipment and shoes, and top-notch travel and lodging, players are playing less — and for way more money.
How does it get fixed? That’s a great question. I don’t think a strongly-worded letter on commissioner’s stationary is going to do the trick.
• Shorten the season – You want players to play in big, nationally televised games? Make them mean more in terms of the standings. If you went to a 66-game schedule, with every team playing their division foes four times and every other team twice, the back-to-back issue would be solved and fans in each NBA locale would see every other team at least once.
And let’s face it, there is very little that happens in terms of playoff contention after the All-Star break anyway. Last season, for instance, 14 of the 16 teams that held playoff spots at the break in February went on to play in the postseason. Only the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets rallied to claim berths, and those teams combined to win one playoff game.
There is currently a lot of superfluous game action in the NBA that really only serves to create revenue for team ownership.
• Limit when stars can sit – LeBron’s tired? OK, he can rest when the Cavs are playing at home. That way, the issue of out-of-town fans getting jilted by watching the King sip a hot beverage after they shelled out good coin is over.
I realize that these options (especially the season-shortening one) are pie-in-the-sky. Would 30 billionaires be willing to punt on the gate from eight home games per year? Not likely.
But, judging from Silver’s reaction and the amount of talk on the subject, this is a growing problem that needs swift action, flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking to curb.
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