Player fatigue has become a major topic of research, study and conversation in the NBA in recent years. Players, analysts and media members have all gone deep on the impact that playing multiple high-level basketball games each week in multiple cities — and often, in multiple time zones — can have on players’ in-game effectiveness and the overall health of their bodies over the course of a season that can stretch from October through June.
But while the league has altered its schedule in an attempt to reduce strain and increase rest — and, y’know, the likelihood that big-name players don’t get “DNP-rested” during marquee nationally televised games anymore — NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has held firm to the notion that, while there’s some room for tweaks, the NBA regular season should remain 82 games long, as it’s been since 1967-68.
That stance might be changing.
During a chat with Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports ahead of the preseason Global Games China exhibitions between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves, Silver talked about the great and ever-increasing appetite for the NBA product abroad, and the league’s longstanding interest in eventually developing franchises outside of North America. This discussion has come up every year since before Silver succeeded David Stern. First, the sitting boss talks up teams (or All-Star Games, or tournaments) in Europe, China or Mexico City as the league’s destiny. Then, he notes the logistical challenges associated with trying to jam double-digit-hour international travel into the NBA calendar as currently constructed, and tables the issue for another day.
While the possibility that eventual expansion would include a franchise in Mexico City (or across an ocean, with an assist from a Supersonic Flight Option to Be Named Later) is intriguing, the more tantalizing here-and-now issue is what Silver said about the construction of that NBA calendar (emphasis mine):
“We can play games in China and Europe, or occasional preseason games as a one-off, but under existing airline technology, the planes aren’t fast enough to at least play in the current framework of our regular season,” Silver, who did not attend Thursday’s game but plans on attending the Warriors-Wolves preseason game in Shanghai on Sunday, said by phone. “(But) it may be something we’ll be looking at over the coming years, is what a regular season schedule look like a decade from now.”
The premise, of course, is that an 82-game schedule would likely be too taxing if there was intercontinental travel added to the schedule.
“There’s nothing magical about 82 games,” Silver continued. “It’s been in place for 50 years, but for the long-term planning of the league, as we learn more about the human body and the wear and tear of travel and the competitive landscape … invariably we’ll look at the regular season. And in looking at the regular season, it may create more opportunities for international franchises.”
It’d be too strong to call it a reversal of course, but desanctifying the 82-game season would seem to represent something of a shift for the league office.
The NBA played a 66-game slate in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, tipping off on Christmas Day — which has become a showcase event for the league over the years, something of an unofficial starting point for casual fans to begin paying attention — and wrapping up in late April. Before the start of the 2012 postseason, the league trumpeted increased ratings and roughly similar attendance figures for the shortened season. Even so, Silver, then deputy commissioner, said he saw no future for anything less than 82 games:
“If you cut the season shorter, we cut our revenues significantly as well. Players would make less, so no, and I think it’s not optimal to play a condensed season in this fashion,” he said Thursday.
“I think both we and the players’ union recognized that going in, but it was a compromise on both our parts to maximize the amount of salary players would get this season and to have as authentic a season as possible, sufficient number of games for competitive reasons.”
Even so, as time wore on and the research on the deleterious impact of fatigue continued to mount, coaches and players — including future Hall of Famers who rank among the most popular and respected dudes the league has to offer — began beating the drum for a shorter season. (Not shorter games, mind you; just fewer of them.) That has continued, with some executives suggesting fewer games (that have more of an impact on postseason seedings, and with players more likely to be in full form) could net the NBA even more money than it currently rakes in, and at least one coach saying he’d be willing to sacrifice a chunk of his paycheck to chop down the total.
With the volume increasing, Silver left the door open to a shorter season in a 2014 interview with our now-colleague Jordan Schultz … but only a crack: “I’m never going to say something’s not a possibility. It’s not on my list right now. […] Everything is on the table, but we’ve had an 82-game season for roughly 45 years. We think it’s optimal.”
Some of those charged with keeping players in top working order, however, disagree.
“Unfortunately, we’ll never really see what these guys can really do,” longtime Los Angeles Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti told ESPN in 2016, “because they’re tired all of the time because of the schedule.”
Despite such commentary — and testimonials from stars like LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Damian Lillard and others about believing fewer games would result in fresher players and a better product — Silver held the line.
“In defense of our players, every player I know wants to play 82 games,” Silver said during a playoff-opening press conference in April of 2016. “It’s their coaches and their organizations that are deciding that they shouldn’t be playing 82 games. As we all know in this room, players want minutes. They want games.”
Back in April, Silver told reporters that a cut from 82 hadn’t been discussed as a potential solution to the issue of teams resting healthy players as a maintenance measure despite an outcry over what such en masse sitdowns mean for in-game competition (and, of course, watchability).
“I’d say because there is no support right now, hard support, for a belief that simply reducing the number of games will reduce the number of injuries,” he said. “As best we understand the issue right now, it’s a function of spacing games. It’s not the totality of games.”
It’s possible that Silver’s comments represent little more than a stock “we’re always open to innovation!” response aimed at burnishing the league’s latter-day reputation as a progressive, forward-thinking institution willing to break with tradition if doing so makes sense. It’s possible that, reams of data on player health aside, it would take the promise of a financial windfall even more staggering than the league’s current $24 billion broadcast rights deal to get the NBA’s Board of Governors to seriously consider coming down from 82. (Whether the National Basketball Players Association — the union representing NBA players, which has recently been more vocal about player health being “paramount to us” — would be willing to meet in the middle by making a game-check sacrifice to match the owners’ gate-receipt give-up would remain to be seen.)
But if Silver’s to be taken at his word, and he’s open to the idea that something could really meaningfully move the needle on the decision-making calculus around 82, then the single largest hurdle to maximizing player health and performance just got a little easier to leap. If that’s true, even if it’s still steeped in theoretics and many years away, then one of the biggest possible changes to the fabric of the NBA as we know it is closer to becoming reality.
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