Before the 2017-18 NBA season, the league decided to make some changes to the schedule. The start of the regular season moved up about 10 days, the All-Star break was extended to provide a full week off between regular season games, and back-to-backs and stretches of 4 games in 5 nights were also reduced. The main purpose of all this was to give players more rest.
During the previous two seasons a trend had begun to take shape where players – specifically, star players – sat out games they were healthy enough to play in so they could keep their bodies fresh.
This had created a backlash from TV sponsors and fans. Many prime-time games that had been heavily promoted served up a letdown when viewers found out the best players were sitting out. During the 2016-17 season it had become commonplace to see kids in NBA arenas with signs touting how much their parent had paid for them to see their favorite player only to find out they were “resting” that game.
As perhaps the most pro-active of the major sports leagues, the NBA got together with the Players Union and agreed to make some changes to the schedule, giving players the extra rest time they were seeking while also alleviating advertiser’s concerns about prime-time games moving forward.
Judging by the reduction of media stories and fan complaints, it would seem that these changes helped get the star players back on the court more often last season. Now, however, less than two full seasons removed from the changes, it seems that plugging some holes only served to open others.
As a big follower of the NBA, as well as a participant in a fantasy league, I can assure you that resting players is again happening quite often. Teams are being a little more discreet about it, targeting games that aren’t nationally televised for their rest spots. A noteworthy exception occurred recently, however, when LeBron James sat out a Saturday night ABC game against Golden State only 2 days after returning from a 17-game absence due to a groin injury. On that occasion the team decided to list “Load Management” rather than “Rest” as the culprit.
The most egregious case of a star player resting this season is with Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors. After only playing 9 games last season despite being ruled healthy for the majority of the season, Leonard has already missed 17 of the Raptors first 61 games this season. Almost every absence this season has been due to Rest, apparently not having had enough in the nine months between his final appearance last season (January 13, 2018) and the start of this season. Kawhi even rested the Raptors’ final game before the week-long All-Star Break, yet found the energy to play 19 minutes in the All-Star Game itself.
Of course, there is more to Leonard’s rest schedule than him not wanting to play. The Raptors took a big gamble in the offseason by trading their own star player in exchange for a player with only one year left on his contract and whose quad health seemed uncertain. I would imagine Toronto’s front office is attempting the difficult balancing act of trying to win games yet saving Leonard’s best for the playoffs, all while demonstrating that his health and well-being is a top priority in hopes of signing him to a long-term contract once the season ends.
No matter the details of each star player’s circumstances, the NBA should once again revisit how to best address the apparent fact that many players think an 82 game regular season is too much for their bodies to handle year in and year out. Shortening the schedule is the obvious answer here, but doing so would likely open up the delicate topic of how a reduced schedule would impact compensation, both in terms of ad revenue and player salaries. So if the league chooses to kick the can down the road and not address this issue during the off-season we’ll know to chalk it up to “load management”.