Managing a Heavy Load: NBA Schedule, Sports Science and Resting for the Playoffs

Most NBA experts acknowledge the 82-game season is too long. The season is a grind: September training camp through mid-June NBA Finals. For those teams that don’t make the playoffs, the off-season begins in mid-April, but the NBA’s superstars, who drive revenue and general fan interest, usually make it at least as far as the second round of the playoffs, which end in mid-May.

This past June, NBA commissioner Adam Silver agreed to consider future changes to the schedule. Whether this means a minor reduction in games, from 82 to 70, and a soccer-style mid-season cup tournament among the top 4 teams, or whether it means a more significant change remains to be seen.

Fewer games means owners would lose ticket revenue, arena revenue (losing several home games) and possibly television revenue — cable deals might decrease, though scarcity would make each game inherently more important. The NBA and the players union would have to agree upon these changes to revenue and player salary.

An average NBA regular season ticket on the secondary market is $89. Season-tickets, multi-game packs, and presale tickets account for a huge portion of available tickets, which drives up the secondary market demand.

The NBA’s popularity has grown to the point where Forbes recently estimated the average value of an NBA team (1.9 billion) to exceed that of a major league baseball team (1.7 billion).

People are spending big money to attend regular season games and then they sometimes discover the biggest star may not be playing, which leaves them irked.

Too Many Playoff Teams, East vs West and Scheduling

While the Western Conference has clearly been the superior conference for decades, and while the NBA’s best free-agents often prefer Western Conference markets, any talk of restructuring the playoffs seems unlikely to gain traction given that restructuring involves the consent of the owners.
Instead of changing the seeding of teams 1–8 in each conference, many have suggested that an overall seeding of 1–16 based on overall best record would make for a better version of the playoffs, though the schedule is currently unbalanced (52 games vs in-conference opponents, 30 games vs opposite conference), which would need to be adjusted to make 1–16 seeding truly even. A 60-game schedule (30/30) would do that. Sixteen of the thirty NBA teams make the playoffs, which inherently devalues the impact of the regular season. It’s highly unlikely any team owners will agree to decrease the amount of teams that make the playoffs, or alter the structure.

The reality that teams in the Central Division (Indiana, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland) face: they have the worst weather of the NBA’s 30 cities, combined with the fact of smaller markets. This makes attracting free-agents much more difficult.

Playoff revenue plus the concept of those 37–40 win teams making the East’s 7th/8th seeds allows owners and marketing departments to push the narrative of a successful season even though the team was mediocre at best.

Sports media and social-media-driven fans generally perpetuate the idea that the NBA’s games in October-December are basically meaningless, compared with those in April, May and June. Many see the Christmas Day games as the start of the real season. By then, teams have played 30–35 games, which is nearly 40% of the schedule. By late December there’s much less viewing competition, as the NFL regular season ends before the New Year.

Legacy and Rings

Playoffs and the number of rings won dominate the long-term legacy conversations about players. The internet seems to love these conversations. Old former-NBA players love to grumble about these things on TV. These conversations are endless ranking fodder for sports journalists/talking heads to compare current players with other generations of players.

While this conversation may seem harmless on the surface, it has some impact on how players treat the too-long regular season, especially in free-agent years. The game’s best players dominate the conversation as does speculation about where they will go in free-agency. In this NBA era of player empowerment/control over owner-team control (the only professional sport where this is true), player reputations become enhanced by the idea that the player would rather win a title than anything else. While this makes the playoffs better, it further enables the overshadowing of the regular season.

Sports Science: Load Management in the Modern Game

Marcus Elliot is a physician and founder/director of the Player Performance Project (P3), a sports science lab and training facility in Santa Barbara. Elliot’s integration of technology, such as wearable body devices measuring the physics of movement/energy/force on ankles, knees, and hips, has allowed the physics of body movement to be more clearly understood and has improved the health and performance of countless professional athletes. He is in contact with at least a dozen NBA teams regarding individual players and health strategies.

At ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton recently collaborated on a piece explaining the science, referencing Elliot’s P3:

“Sports scientists who have closely tracked NBA players — things such as change of direction, deceleration, explosiveness — say that the magnitude of those movements has increased measurably in recent years.”

Load Management is an individualized player program used to monitor the body’s stress (or load) a player endures doing any number of training, pre-game, or in-game activities.

This is not the same NBA game that it was even twenty years ago. Increases in the amount of player movement, deceleration, and overall athleticism due to less isolation and more rapid ball movement — have all impacted player health. In addition, basketball prospects are being overused in their teenage years by an AAU system that has little oversight or long-term consideration for player health.

This chasm between what is best for the team and player (long-term or just season-long) and what makes for a satisfied fan..this is the crux of the issue. As long as fans continue to pay high prices for tickets, cable subscriptions, NBA League pass, merchandise, and follow the NBA so rabidly on social media, it’s hard to imagine this chasm closing anytime soon.

Kawhi and the Clippers

The most recent controversy around load management stems from Kawhi Leonard sitting out a nationally-televised clash between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard’s dominance of the NBA and his health considerations have pushed the conversation of “load management” and the need for understanding the data around sports science further into the light. As is the case with controversies today, the nuances of the conversation are often overshadowed by the headlines, fines, and talking heads of sports media. Unsurprisingly, the average sports fan seems to prefer shouting over gaining an understanding of the science of physiology, or the general principle that Kawhi should be preparing his body for April, May and June, as he did with the Toronto Raptors last year, playing in only 60 games and then leading the Raptors to the title, a series in which he took home the MVP.

How the NBA handles the absence of its biggest stars in nationally televised games has always been a sticky issue. While ESPN spends much of its NBA marketing money on promoting the 10 or 15 biggest stars in the game, the actual early-season games often feature the absence of said stars.

Nationally Televised Absences

While eight teams will be granted one nationally televised game this season, the Lakers and Warriors will each have 30. With Steph Curry out for the year, ESPN, TNT, and ABC are all undoubtedly scrambling to fill those Warriors games with other teams.

All of this makes for a frustratingly salty bouillabaisse.

Good thing I’m too busy to watch as much of the NBA’s regular season as I used to. Guess I’ll have to wait until after the All-Star Break in February to see the game’s best in action.

After last season, blaming Kawhi for making the decision to rest his knee on back-to-backs is ridiculous. Until the schedule changes, the NBA has to do a better job of scheduling nationally televised games when the game’s best are not forced into back-to-backs.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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