Silver downplays load management: ‘I don’t have a good answer’ for fan frustration
SALT LAKE CITY — Stephen Curry was voted an All-Star but is out of Sunday’s showcase game due to a left leg injury. Kevin Durant (knee) and Zion Williamson (hamstring) are both out as well (although Zion is in Salt Lake City doing promotional work).
Beyond that trio, the list of All-Stars who have missed at least 10 games this season is long: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo (who has a wrist injury that could limit his minutes on Sunday), Luka Dončić, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, and Jaren Jackson Jr.
While many of those missed games are due to legitimate injuries, star players missing games and load management — seeming to devalue the regular season — have become hot topics around the league.
“I understand it from a fan standpoint that if you are particularly buying tickets to a particular game and that player isn’t playing. I don’t have a good answer for that other than this is a deep league with incredible competition,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in his annual All-Star weekend press conference. “But the mindset of our teams and players these days… is that they should be optimizing performance for the playoffs. The difficulty is fans of that team, of those teams, want them to do that as well.”
The NBA and its player’s union — deep in negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — are discussing the issue. There have been reports the NBA could tie eligibility for postseason awards such as MVP or Defensive Player of the Year to games played.
“It’s something that I don’t think we’re approaching in an adversarial way with the players association,” Silver said. “We’re working collectively, together with our doctors, our data scientists, and trying to see if there’s an optimal way for player performance. If it means at some point we conclude that we’re better off elongating the schedule... that’s worth looking at. If we thought it made sense to reduce the number of games we would.”
That is one of the most common calls — reduce the number of games in the too-long NBA season. Steve Kerr has suggested reducing the NBA schedule by 10 games, to 72. While that would lead to difficult financial questions, Silver isn’t convinced reducing the number of games would reduce player load management all that much.
“You’ll recall only two seasons ago coming out of the bubble season, we played a 72-game season,” Silver said. “Now, the footprint was slightly smaller, but it was an interesting experiment because it didn’t change team behavior all that much in terms of the focus on load and players.”
That season is a flawed sample. The bubble season had stretched into October, then the NBA turned around and quickly started the new season before Christmas. That short offseason had teams resting and watching players closely, plus there was time missed by players due to COVID. That said, it’s fair to think that playing just 72 games would change team behavior much when the focus is on the postseason.
From the player’s perspective, they are trying to perform at their peak while protecting their bodies for a longer career, and they are following the smart science.
“Nobody knows how anyone else’s body heals. The only person that knows is the person that is hurt or injured,” Kyrie Irving said Saturday. “We try our best to tell [the media] what is going on, but you have doctors online telling everybody that he needs to be back in two weeks. You’ve got this person over here saying that he is not really hurt. He doesn’t want to play.
“So I think the narratives have run amok. But as players, we take pride in preparing ourselves at a very high level and performing for our families and the fans that support us. We’re nothing without our fans.
I just think the narrative needs to change in terms of load management. Eighty-two games is a long season.”
Silver’s 30-minute meeting with the media covered a lot of ground. Other topics covered include:
• Player trade requests/player movement was another topic in the wake of both Durant and Irving switching conferences at the deadline via trade.
“It’s interesting also that we’ve had probably as much player movement this year than at any time in our history,” Silver said. “And I think that speaks to teams, as we got close to the trade deadline, trying to situate themselves in the best possible position to compete going into the playoffs. And in this case over 10% of the entire league was moved roughly in the last week before the trade deadline.”
Durant had said earlier in the day that player trade requests were “great” for the league. Silver wouldn’t go that far, but he does recognize that player movement draws attention to the NBA.
“When it comes to player movement, I generally think that’s positive,” Silver said. “In fact, we designed this current Collective Bargaining Agreement with shorter contracts, for example, with the way free agency works, to allow for that. I think for fans, you don’t want your team to be locked into mediocrity. You want teams to be in a position with smart management where they can rebuild or make smart moves or, frankly, with both teams and players, work themselves out of bad relationships.
“That’s very different than a so-called demand for a trade. I think that, in fact, the Players Association has agreed with us in our current collective bargaining agreement there are rules against making public trade demands.”
Silver said that a couple of times, but he’s playing with semantics. Kyrie Irving didn’t violate the rules because he did not sit down in front of a mic with a reporter (or say on social media) he wanted a trade, he never made a public statement. However, his representatives told the team, and soon after everyone in the league knew. That’s still a trade demand, even if it’s not a public one.
• Both Silver and NBPA executive director Tamika L. Tremaglio said in separate press conferences that getting a new CBA worked out before the newly-set March 31 deadline to opt out was a priority.
While neither Silver nor Tremaglio would get into detail on any sticking points with the new CBA, both said returning the NBA’s age limit to 18 — getting rid of the current “one-and-done” rule — was being discussed. Tremaglio said it was important to both find a way to properly mentor the 18-year-olds coming into the league and not take jobs away from established veterans.
• Silver played down concerns over the looming bankruptcy of the Diamond Sports Group, which oversees the Bally Sports regional sports network, which carries the games of 16 NBA teams.
“Short term, I’m not all that concerned,” Silver said of the potential bankruptcy. “It largely affects the regular season for the NBA in terms of distributing, delivering those games directly to our consumers. And if they were to indeed, you know, file for bankruptcy, there won’t be that much of the regular season left. For that period of time, we will have in place arrangements, if necessary, to continue to distribute those games to fans…
“I would say long term I’m not that concerned because there are many other ways, platforms, including local over-the-air television, streaming services, other methods, to bring those games linear and digitally directly to fans,” he added. “In the mid-term, it’s an issue we’re going to have to work through.”