NEW YORK – Hello, NBA postseason. Goodbye, “load management.”
That’s the hope, anyway. That odd term, coined to cover otherwise healthy players sitting out a game here, a game there – or maybe a dozen or more of the 82 their teams actually are scheduled to play – is intended strictly for the regular season.
The idea that a top performer would be held out for a night in the thick of a best-of-seven playoff series seems so self-defeating and wrong, even by 2019 standards, that it would be highly unlikely.
It was a nagging issue for six months, though, watering down some games’ mix of competition and entertainment. And when the season’s days dwindled to a precious few, the matter of who played and who rested affected more than just the teams on that court, the folks in that building and the audience tuned in to that particular game.
Now other teams had a vested interest. Scoreboard-watching down the stretch, they might see that a rival for a playoff berth or seeding position had caught a break, its opponent that night sitting out starters. Didn’t seem very porting.
“I'm never quite comfortable where things are at,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Friday when discussing the topic at some length after the spring Board of Governors meeting.
“I think especially over that last week, you can imagine there's a fair amount of angst in the league office.”
Silver acknowledged that teams – both those seeking guidelines for how to rest key players without playoff implications and those upset when those very situations arose – had been “calling our general counsel Rick Buchanan or calling Mark Tatum or calling me.”
Said Silver: “There aren't always bright-line answers we can give them. We always have one eye, too, that we know that the playoffs are what this is all about. So we don't want to end up forcing a team to do something silly when it could cause issues in terms of health for the most important part of the season.”
The challenge of seeking a solution suitable to all is daunting, though. Enough so that Silver launched into a discussion of what might be considered drastic ideas about changing or shortening the 82-game season in the future.
For instance, shorter seasons. Or shorter games. Or some sort of in-season tournaments modeled after international soccer seasons.
“Those are all things we're looking at,” the commissioner said. “They're not the kinds of format changes you're going to make without lots and lots of deliberation. “
Silver said that at this week’s meetings, Byron Spruell, NBA president of basketball operations, made a presentation about such format changes. Understandably, any major overhaul of the product would require cooperation of the teams and the players, and likely need time – “five years out, six years out,” Silver said – before implementation.
The NBA in recent seasons has taken steps aimed at lessening player workloads, such as lessening the number of back-to-back schedules, pumping the All-Star break to a week and stretching the league calendar to allow more days between games. And still, stars such as Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis or LeBron James were frequent scratches throughout 2018-19, held out for rest, for general soreness or to preserve their future value as assets.
“Sometimes it's science, but sometimes it's art,” Silver said. “I think a fair point from fans could be if ultimately the science suggests that 82 games is too many games for these players, maybe you shouldn't have an 82-game season. I accept that, and that's something we'll continue to look at.”
The suggestion of a play-in tournament before the playoffs has been rattling around NBA headquarters for years. A more recent notion has been a midseason tournament of some sort. Both presumably would mean that some teams would be idled for some number of days.
Keeping the NBA game popular with fans, especially those consuming as TV viewers or users across other platforms, is a priority close behind player health. Changing viewership and new competition, Silver said, demand that the league consider new ways of presenting the game. That could mean the start of new traditions.
“We and the players have a common interest in maximizing viewership and maximizing interest,” the commissioner said. “The format we have in place now… I'm a traditionalist on one hand, but on the other hand it's 50 years old or so, presenting an 82-game season, and there's nothing magical about it.”
Among other topics touched on in his news conference, Silver paid tribute to Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, both retiring after surefire Hall of Fame careers.
“Two guys, very different backgrounds, very different styles of play, very different approaches,” Silver said, “but just incredibly wonderful guys who the league office has worked closely with over many years and who I have no doubt will now find different ways to engage directly with the league as retired NBA players.”
There was another farewell of sorts Tuesday when Lakers legend Magic Johnson suddenly resigned as that team’s president of basketball operations. Like so many others, Silver learned what was happening in real time, when he got a text urging him to turn on Johnson’s impromptu media session carried live on NBA TV.
The two have been in touch since.
“Ultimately, I want what's best for Magic,” Silver said. “He's been an incredible ambassador for this game. … In some ways, we're getting him back.”
If Johnson were to stay “unattached” from the Lakers, Silver said, he could mentor “a next generation of players.” Without fear of running afoul of tampering rules, as Johnson did in comments he made about Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“So I don't view him as exiting the league in any way,” the commissioner said. “In fact, I see it as him re-engaging in other ways.”
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