It is the elephant in the room, the dirty little secret and the problem child packed off to boarding school about whom little is spoken. It typically rears its head in the final weeks of the regular season, although innovative San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich broke it out way back in November this season.
It is the tendency of NBA teams to rest and tank late each season, usually one or the other but with largely similar results.
Teams near the top of the standings do it, especially those locked or nearly so into their playoff position, as a way to boost their primary contributors’ energy and overall condition heading into the postseason. Teams near the bottom do it, too, to increase their lottery odds for higher draft position. It makes for anticlimactic games in late March or April matchups that, on paper, looked like showdowns but in reality unspool like shutdowns.
LeBron James played once in Miami’s first five games after its 27-game winning streak was snapped in Chicago 10 days ago. The same with Dwyane Wade. Popovich has his finger on the Spurs’ pulse. sitting out players as needed because what begins two weeks from now is more important than what’s happening now. The NBA doesn’t like it but — unless it senses a coach is rubbing the practice in the league’s face the way Popovich was deemed to have done with San Antonio’s ghost flight to Miami — doesn’t do much about it.
Meanwhile, the value of tickets to those games go down. So does the experience of targeting a visit by the Heat, the Lakers or the Thunder to see a marquee player, only to (maybe) see the fellow in street clothes and fashion eyeglasses. We live in a caveat emptor world, sure, but much of this flows from the NBA’s priorities — the playoffs matter, April less so — as put out there by the league itself.
Can nothing be done? Well, here are a few possible fixes:
Shorten the regular season. Spread the games out and cut back to 72. Or 70. Or 66 like the 2011-12 post-lockout schedule. Plenty of coaches and players felt that number of games was about right, if only they hadn’t been scrunched together in a span of four months. The prospect of this happening, of course, is nil — each game night is an earning opportunity and everyone involved, especially players and owners, would end up taking a haircut if revenues took a hit.
Count April games double in terms of playoff positioning or tiebreakers. Or more precisely, since not all teams play the same number of games in April, weight the final 20 games of everyone’s schedule heavier in terms of impact on the above. It might require a points system similar to the NHL’s but coaches might think twice about sitting out players if a loss that night enabled a rival to close not by one game but two in the standings.
Stick a week of R&R in between the regular season and the postseason. Instead of rest and recreation, NBA players would use it as rehab and recovery from the grind and demands of the 82-game schedule. The healthier among them could simply catch their breaths. With a week’s gap, there would be less value in or need for skipped games in early or mid April. No one loses any earning dates but everyone gets a rest. It wouldn’t hurt marketability any more than the NFL’s weeks between game (and double that prior to the Super Bowl).
Which of these options might work best and minimize the NBA’s number of starless nights? Discuss among yourselves.