More and more, it seems the NBA’s regular season is a waste of time and money.
OK, so that’s a lie.
It’s good for some things, but not necessarily for what you might think.
The Jazz have their reasons to see what happens day by day, as fans pay hundreds of dollars for tickets, and another hundred for parking, a hot dog, a beverage, a pretzel and a cup of ice cream. It’s not a complete exhibition for the Jazz. It’s more an extended practice/tryout for which they, as an organization, make a whole lot of money.
Mostly, though, it is entertainment for the fans. Not as much as it would be if the contest for which they were dropping so much cash actually meant something significant.
It does not.
Competitively speaking, on a night-to-night basis, the NBA is more show-and-dough than go-and-know. No matter how much serious pretense is involved, the individual games do not matter much.
If the inner-sports fan doesn’t want to believe or accept that, consider this: The teams themselves don’t really care about winning. Not in January, no, only in April, May and, if they’re exceptional, June.
Proof? Two words: load management.
And the season-long results substantiate and encourage that pull-back-now-to-win-later strategy. Obviously a measure of winning needs to be done, but only a measure.
Everybody knows load management during the regular season is a well-established thing, teams holding out key players as a means to preserve them, their talent, their energy, their availability, their health for the season that really matters — the postseason.
But on a Saturday night in mid-winter, the paying customer gets no discount on their tickets, on their cheese nachos, on their slice of pizza because Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James or Nikola Jokic or Mike Conley or whoever is sitting out — not because of injury, rather on account of … I dunno, make something up, anything.
Former Jazz player Richard Jefferson recently told his own story on one of those ESPN panel-discussion shows. Maybe you saw it. He passionately revealed the time when he was a young kid, a huge basketball fan, growing up in a family that didn’t have much extra cash to spend on something as extravagant as an NBA game.
“My father dropped me off at the game, gave me five dollars, and I went in there by myself because my family couldn’t afford to go to the game,” he said.
His father bought him that single ticket to watch the San Antonio Spurs play because David Robinson was his son’s favorite player. So his dad drove him to the game, then went to a bar to watch the same game, then came back to pick him up afterward. It was a memorable gift from father-to-son. And Jefferson said how much it meant to him to see his sports idol in action. If Robinson had not played that night, for one reason or another, for load management, it wouldn’t have been what it was.
Sitting players for this or that, absent of authentic injury, is all the rage these days — it’s been that way for a few years now — and its bound to get worse because every layer of franchises have signed off on it — owners, coaches, trainers, players themselves.
“We can’t just gloss over this,” Jefferson said. “I blame the teams, the training staff, cause the players in this generation are doing more of what they are told than going out there and leaving it all out there on the floor.”
Accusations have been made by NBA pundits such as Charles Barkley that the owners will use this as a negotiating tactic in the next CBA, driving down contract costs because — why should they pay out so much money when star players aren’t on the floor the way they used to be?
But that goes both ways.
With the huge modern salaries and the investments teams make in star players being what they are, and the players knowing what’s at stake for their earning potential, many don’t want to take risks in those investments, that future earning potential.
Back off then. Take it easy or easier. No reason to play tonight, no reason to play every night.
Such a notion would be objectionable, and was objectionable, to John Stockton and Karl Malone, and so many other oldsters, guys who suited and laced up even in the face of dings, pulls, bruises, fatigue.
Rest? Try telling Jerry Sloan you wanted the night off because you were pooped.
The other side to this discussion, beyond what the fans pay for and deserve to get, is how much it matters competitively over the course of a season. Do star players need to play the vast majority of nights for their teams to be successful?
The answer is no, not in most cases. Teams, in fact, think it’s the opposite.
Save the stars for the games that really count.
Winning big in the regular season is no big thing. Only about a third of the teams with the best regular-season record end up winning the NBA title. More than you’d think don’t even make the Finals, so why stress it?
Doing everything possible to win a game on a random February night doesn’t add up to squat, not over the long haul. And if it doesn’t carry much weight, why should the energy of the stars be expended to reach for victory?
Here’s why: The fans, the people who pay to watch their team carry the weight, to expend the energy to win, to see their favorite player take the floor, even if a player has a boo-boo or two, or no boo-boo at all.
Jazz fans, like fans of most teams in most years, want to see their team excel in the playoffs, to do what’s necessary to achieve that goal. They’ve seen past seasons when stars really have gotten injured in the randomness of the regular season and that’s been punitive later on.
These players are human, after all, they cannot perform at a peak level with peak health every game every night because they’re not super-human — even if they’re paid as though they are — especially with so many back-to-back games piled into the schedule.
That’s why this whole load-management deal is complicated.
How about this for a novel and noble conclusion: When in doubt, when arguments can be made in either direction, deliver to the customer what the customer paid for, what Richard Jefferson’s dad sacrificed to pay for so his young son could have an experience he remembers with fondness some 30 years later.
That’s significant enough. No lie.