The NBA is rolling right now, having become a true year-round obsession like nothing save football, and reaching new heights of popularity. (An example: My mother, not a basketball fan in the least, recently asked me if the Summer League was a new thing, because this was the first time she’d heard of it. If you’re getting on my mom’s radar in the middle of the offseason, you’re doing something right.)
But if there’s one problem, besides a lack of parity (and given that the NBA is a national sport in the sense that it appeal goes beyond one’s local team, I’m not sure that’s a major hurdle), it’s that the league can’t always get its biggest players in front of the biggest audience. The last few years, star players have been increasingly rested for nationally broadcast games, usually when they’re part of of back-to-backs.
This has become a whole thing. In the span of one week last March, the Warriors played without Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, and then the Cavaliers rested LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, both for games aired on ABC. The league doesn’t like this, and TV partners sure as hell don’t like this, not when they’re paying $2.6 billion a year. But you can’t prevent a coach from sitting his best players, not in the middle of a long season and not when there’s another game the very next day.
There’s reason to believe things are going to get better. The 2017-18 NBA schedule will be released this month, and in a memo sent to teams (and obtained by ESPN), the league has highlighted some major changes designed to provide more rest for players, and presumably make sure the best players don’t need days off when ESPN and TNT have the games.
Among the changes:
- Eliminating stretches of four games in five days and 18 games in 30 days.
- Reduction of five games in seven nights to just 40 instances across (1.3 per team), down from last year when it was on the schedule 90 times (three per team).
- Reduction in number of back-to-backs to 14.9 per team, down from 16.3 per team. In all, 40 back-to-backs have been eliminated from last season.
- Reduction of single-game road trips by 17 percent.
- Reduction in single-game road trips over 2,000 miles by 67 percent; there are only 11 of them on schedule.
This seems like it can only be a good thing. (The regular season will start a week earlier this year, as negotiated into the new CBA, making room for changes like these.) Ideally, all these particularly grueling stretches would be eliminated altogether, not just for TV but to maintain players’ health over the season and keep everyone in best form for the playoffs. But the only way to make that happen would be to shorten the season, and I’d be all for that—58 games would be plenty, and February through April is a pretty joyless slog as things are. But it won’t happen. The owners don’t want it (money), and the players don’t want it (also money). So we’ll all have to be satisfied with these baby steps.