Here are some points. All of them can be, and maybe even are, valid, in the same universe, at the same time.
1. If the adage about the NBA being a star-driven league is a cliché, it’s also true. The entertainment value of an NBA game for all but the hardest of die-hard fans (more on this in a second) is borne overwhelmingly by the relatively small number of star players involved, and in general the cost of a ticket tends to track pretty closely with the combined star-wattage of the two rosters. Even the very best possible NBA game won’t include more than, say, five or six legitimate All-Star types out of the 24 total players who might take the court; most games will not have more than one or two. (Nets-Magic features none at all; for our purposes, it may as well be simulated.) If stars are not quite literally worth the price of admission, they’re worth the bulk of it.
For this reason, even under normal circumstances purchasing a ticket, or tickets, to an NBA game generally involves assuming a bit more risk than comes along with admission to, say, an NFL game. Maybe Russell Westbrook sprains his ankle in the first minute, and like that your random midseason Heat-Thunder game loses pretty much all of its appeal as a live spectacle. Even solid fans of one team or the other might feel no desire to do more than check the box score of that game the following morning; if you already bought your ticket and traveled to the arena, well, them’s the breaks.
This is to say, when you buy a ticket to an NBA game—or, hell, when you re-up your season tickets, or even just plan your evening around watching the game from home—you take your chances. Caveat emptor, and all that.
2. But also, and mostly for the same reasons, Jeff Van Gundy is right when he caterwauls about how lousy it is for a team to do what the Cavaliers did this weekend. Waiting until a few hours before tipoff to announce the elective withdrawal, for rest, of a visiting team’s entire complement of star players—turning a previously hypeworthy national-broadcast game between star-studded playoff teams, one of the tentpole attractions of the regular season schedule, into the perfunctory bludgeoning of an ill-prepared junior varsity squad—erases hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of value from what a ticket-buying customer would have purchased by then to, say, take a family of four to watch the game. (I’m certainly not going to do the math, but it surely erases value from a subscription to either of the two teams’ regional sports networks, as well.)
That difference in value is not computed and refunded to the sorry fuckers who spent nigh on a grand to take the kids out to see LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and instead got 40 bucks’ worth of Channing Frye and Deron Williams. The word you’re thinking of is fraud. (Okay, maybe you’re thinking of, like, breach of contract, which is three words. I’m not a lawyer! In any event it sucks.) Clippers fans who bought their tickets to Saturday’s game prior to the Cavs’ announcement that James, Irving, and Kevin Love would all sit out ought to be pissed off: They got robbed.
3. To the extent that anybody’s criticism of the practice of NBA teams resting (generally black) star players has hinged on the idea that those players are lazy or are shirking their work responsibilities, that’s every bit as stupid and unfounded and rooted in racist stereotypes as you know it is; that professional basketball players work far harder and are more self-motivated than virtually anybody registering that complaint is beyond dispute.
4. Yes, on the whole, probably most sports fans are entitled shitheads; yes, in general, discussion of what NBA teams and players owe or do not owe to their paying customers carries all kinds of extremely fraught and ugly baggage, and being on the side of what works for the former probably is the safer place to be. But if some rando who plunked down many hundreds of dollars to attend Cavs-Clippers on the promise that he’d get to see LeBron James and Kyrie Irving doing dope shit is feeling aggrieved today, it doesn’t have to be because he’s a selfish asshole or because he doesn’t recognize the humanity of the players performing for his entertainment. It could just be because he got ripped off by a very powerful multi-billion-dollar corporation, and has no recourse whatsoever. I bet everyone reading this knows what that’s like.
5. Thankfully, all but the very most paste-munching corners of sports media seem to have picked up on this. Coverage of the star-resting phenomenon, and of Van Gundy’s comments about it, mostly has gone something like He could probably stand to take it down a notch, but this genuinely does suck for ticket-paying customers, and it’s mostly the NBA’s fault for scheduling so many back-to-back games. That’s good! That’s a reasonable take, and you can find it pretty much everywhere today.
6. The problem—well, a problem, one of the problems—is that there’s really no practical way for the NBA to enforce a prohibition of, or penalty for, this sort of thing within the context of the regular season as presently constructed. Even leaving aside the possibility that teams might just make up phantom but more credible-sounding injuries to excuse their most burdened players from the occasional back-to-back, it actually is possible for, say, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green to be completely worn out at the same time, and for this exhaustion to have revealed itself a few hours before tipoff! What then? Fine the team for bad fatigue management? And to what end? So that next time the three tired stars will draw straws to see which one will prop up the ticket value of a Warriors-Spurs game while the other two recuperate? That sucks!
7. But also, since we’re taking stock of the interest of fans, it’s worth noting that all of this looks very different to Cavaliers fans, at least some of whom probably are happy to sacrifice the front end of a back-to-back if it means their team’s stars will bring fresher legs to the defense of their championship later on this spring. If they have a grievance here, it’s one they share with LeBron James, and it’s directed at Cleveland’s front office for constructing a thin roster that put too big a burden on its star players for the first few months of the regular season. Prohibiting those same star players from getting some rest rather obviously is not the solution.
8. This is to say—and not for the first time—that a professional sports season is not just The Crucible Of Champions, and it is not just serialized live-entertainment ephemera, either. It is both of those things, insofar as it serves customers who value it for one or the other or both in varying measure, and it is also a work environment staffed by real human beings, and it is big business, and it is other stuff, too. I’m glad I get to be somebody who just watches it on TV and writes about it sometimes.
9. In that capacity, I don’t like acknowledging this, but: The NBA regular season has too many games, and this is a natural consequence of it. That’s true even if the resting of star players for high-profile, nationally-televised games turns out not to be, as I suspect it is, a form of protest on the part of players and coaches. The league supposedly has gotten better about reducing the travel load and the number of back-to-back affairs in recent years, but it remains flatly bonkers that NBA teams regularly are asked to tipoff two games in 24 hours; if spacing the games out more reasonably means the regular-season lasts the entire calendar year, then the solution is to have fewer games.
10. A certain class of fan won’t like that, either! And I sympathize with them. Pro basketball is awesome. I like to watch it a lot. I like to be able to turn on the TV in the evening and find a basketball game to watch. If I had a shorter swath of year in which to do that, that would be a bummer. I suspect I’d live.
11. Though it may hem and haw and place anonymous quotes in the media about commissioner Adam Silver’s dismay at teams resting their stars for nationally televised games, the league’s prerogatives almost certainly find more common ground with those Cavs fans than with the ticket-buyers who got screwed. That is to say, if a few tanked regular-season games are the cost of ensuring we get Cavs-Warriors, Part III (instead of, say, Raptors-Jazz, Part I) in the Finals, Silver himself will gladly light an entire arena’s worth of tickets on fire and use them to warm LeBron’s relaxing bubble bath for him. He would be a fool not to.
This, not for nothing, is another reason to sympathize with the ticket buyers who got fucked over the weekend. All they’ll ever get from the league is an empty performance of concern.
12. The Warriors play the Thunder tonight in Oklahoma City. At the time of this writing, the worst tickets in the house are going for around 50 bucks a seat on secondary sales sites. If the Warriors announce later today that they will rest Curry, Thompson, and Green to preserve their legs for their game 24 hours later in Dallas, sure, yes, I would understand, because that is dumber-than-hell scheduling and the Warriors have larger concerns than winning a March road game, even over a fellow playoff team.
On the other hand, the choice to watch something else on TV will cost me nothing. A fan who buys four tickets to the game will have wasted 200 dollars. Fuck that.
13. If the Warriors choose to play their stars tonight, then give them tomorrow night off, I will understand that, too. I will also understand if the Warriors ask their most important and most heavily burdened players to play in two games 24 hours apart, late in the season, when the grind of the schedule is taking its toll and the playoffs loom.
That is my privilege as a guy who watches the games on TV and writes about them sometimes. In any case, somebody else will be fucked by the NBA schedule, and will have a reason to be sore about it.