The NBA, we’re told, has a problem on its hands.
Teams around the league are sitting out their star players while they’re completely healthy, robbing the paying customer of opportunities to see their favorite athletes in person.
It’s a problem that has come to a head the last two weeks, with a pair of marquee matchups on national television spoiled as their stars only graced the screen in street clothes.
The league commissioner sent out a memo to owners to ask the 30 teams to get the problem under control. The national handwringing has followed, with people lamenting for the “old days” when players played every possible minute on the floor.
But, while there is a recent uptick, there isn’t a problem. And, league-wide the issue isn’t even that rampant.
Houston point guard James Harden, one of the top candidates for the NBA’s most valuable player this season, hasn’t missed a game this year. Neither has Oklahoma City guard and fellow MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.
Also starting every possible game this season? The top players for the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic.
This isn’t a big problem.
The guys that have missed games are from three prominent teams, namely the last three champions: the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
And is the issue really that glaring? Two-time defending MVP Stephen Curry of Golden State has started 68 of 72 games this season. San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard has played in 62 of 69 games.
The person the debate is really about, because he is approaching all-time great numbers, is LeBron James, who is having another MVP-worthy season having played 63 of 69 games for the Cavaliers this season.
At most, we’re talking about eight games in the length of an 82-game regular season. This isn’t a runaway issue. The vast majority of people going to a game to see a superstar play will see that superstar play.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s compare this to the nostalgia that is the counterargument, taking away the fantasy and looking at real numbers. Afterall, the argument goes, Larry Bird was tougher than that and Michael Jordan wouldn’t hear the suggestion of taking a healthy scratch.
Bird’s entire career lasted 13 seasons, cut short by back problems. In that career he played all 82 games twice, though none after his first two seasons. He never started more than 75 games in his last six seasons.
Jordan played 15 seasons and played all 82 games seven times and at least 78 games 10 times. He also famously took off a year and a half in his prime to play baseball and three seasons off at the end of his career before a brief two-season stint with the Washington Wizards.
According to Basketball Reference, including the postseason, Bird played 41,329 minutes in his career. Jordan played 48,485.
James, who is in his 14th season, has played 49,227 minutes in his career. More than both Bird and Jordan in their entire careers. More than the entire careers of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. He’ll pass Shaquille O’Neal by the end of the season.
Only Elvin Hayes played more minutes through 14 seasons, and he only played two more seasons with diminishing returns. Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Karl Malone are the only players that continued to have long, productive careers after posting those type of minutes to start their careers.
All that’s not counting summers James has been asked to spend with USA Basketball playing in the Olympics and world championships, a responsibility that hasn’t been a full commitment until the U.S. lost the gold in 2004, James’ first of three stints with the squad.
But, resting star players, especially LeBron, is a bad idea? And while James is at the far end of the spectrum, many of the league’s top players are piling up more minutes than ever with longer playoff series and more offseason responsibilities.
Even if we’re not comparing the wear and tear on different eras, wouldn’t you trade a few games of rest to see Bird extend his career by a few more seasons? Isn’t that worth not seeing him play on the second game of a back-to-back during a nine-game road trip?
I, for one, don’t want to see the careers of James, Curry and Leonard driven short because we wanted to see them play more times against the Phoenix Suns in February.
There is a lot asked of today’s players, responsibilities that they are well compensated for. With that compensation comes expectations.
With the money and luxuries given to current players, teams and fans expect careers of the best players to last well into their 30s. They expect them to be healthy and at the top of their game each time they step on the floor.
In a long and physically-strenuous season, taking a few games off isn’t a lot to ask to make sure the best players can meet those expectations.
Could we ask that those eight games they take off a year not be during nationally-televised games? Not during marquee matchups? Sure. But, we should also understand that those teams understand their players better than we do.
If it helps San Antonio extend the careers of players that have brought them five championships, or it helps James make six straight NBA Finals appearances, we as fans should be fine with giving up a few games in the middle of the season.
In the long run, it’s as good for us as it is for them.