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Monson: An easy answer to NBA's most complicated problem

Published March 24, 2017 1:54 pm

NBA • Fans and television networks get shortchanged when stars sit, so just play already
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NBA fans are getting screwed over.

And if that was the worst of it, that's the way it would stay.

It's not, at least not as far as the league's powers are concerned.

NBA TV partners are getting screwed over, too.

That's cause for immediate concern — and change.

The business of basketball is good right now, and when television networks infuse $24 billion into all that goodness, what is problematic to them is problematic to the league.

Well. The league has a problem.

It begins and ends with the resting of players. This has been going on for years now, but it was highlighted in recent nationally televised games — including the Warriors-Spurs and the Cavs-Clippers — in which those marquee NBA teams were not marquee at all. They looked like random matches out of the Italian League. That's what happens when Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green are added to the shelf, alongside the already injured Kevin Durant, and, on the other side, injuries removed Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Take LeBron James out of any game, and the entertainment and competitive intrigue automatically suffers.

Competitive integrity also suffers. In the thick of a Western Conference playoff race, how excited were the Jazz that the Clippers, one of the teams battling them for playoff positioning, benefited from facing — and, as it turned out, beating — the Cavs without LeBron?

He could have played, but he didn't.

And that sentence is at the core of the argument.

Fans pay big money for tickets to NBA games. They want to see more than basketball played at its highest level, they want to see stars play basketball at its highest level. The NBA has nobody to blame for that but itself. It has marketed its stars better than any other sport, going back to the early days of David Stern. Fans didn't just want to see the Celtics and the Lakers play, they wanted to see Larry Bird and Magic Johnson play. They didn't want to see the Bulls, they wanted to see MJ's Bulls. That's as true now as it was then: Steph's Warriors, LeBron's Cavs, Chris Paul's Clips, Kawhi's Spurs, and on down the line.

When coaches sit top players, then, not because of injury but because they perceive their players need a blow, fans get no discount or refund. They pay the same, even if the Italian League is trotted out on the court. They don't get what they paid for. Ask any freshman business student what happens when customers get messed with like that.

When organized forces like networks get messed with, especially those paying billions of dollars for the draw of players who are resting on the bench, there's hell to pay back.

The NBA's problem here is fundamental and, yet, complex. It has an 82-game regular season, and then a postseason that could include as many as another 28 games. Modern biometrics, apparently, are indicating that that's too much to ask of human beings. The numbers, it is said, show that maxing out the bodies of star players by playing them excessive minutes is more likely to cause injuries or to have a detrimental effect over the long term.

The fact that many of the greats of the past, some of whom complain now about how soft modern players are, played a full slate of games and went on to win championships back when basketball was more physical than it is currently gets ignored.

Adam Silver issued a statement that indicated the NBA acknowledges the problem and will promptly address it. Exactly how remains to be seen. Nobody believes the powers will reduce the number of regular-season games — in spite of the detail that everybody knows 82 is not ideal — for the obvious reason that doing so would cost the teams and players money. As is, the players get paid the same whether they sit or play, and often it's coaches and managers who are calling for their rest, not the players themselves. Already, the league plans to breathe more space between games into the schedule. But how elongated can the season reasonably become when it has football on one end and July on the other?

Silver's statement properly seemed to be putting pressure on ownership to get control of coaches who are benching players on a whim or at their pleasure or at their judgment that that's what's best for the team's playoff chances. If everything during the regular season hangs on playoff performance and only playoff performance, then the regular season becomes basically a six-month exhibition. And if it's a six-month exhibition, reduced in game-by-game significance, what is that worth to fans who buy tickets and networks who televise games and advertisers who buy commercial space?

The NBA has a problem.

Its science and sophisticated thought is clashing with its marketing which is clashing with its coaches which is clashing with its fans which is clashing with its schedule which is clashing with former players who say taking pride in showing up for work every day is the answer, that good old hard work never hurt anybody, that giving customers what they pay for is never a bad idea.

Check out Michael Jordan's record in this regard. He played 14 years, plus one truncated season coming back from baseball. Over that span, 12 times he played in at least 78 regular-season games, 11 times he played in 80-plus games, seven times he played in all 82 games. He won six NBA titles.

Maybe the solution isn't all that complicated, after all.

Maybe the stars should just go ahead and be like Mike and play the game they're paid to play.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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