In the latest move designed to keep its best players doing precisely that – playing – the NBA is enacting tougher rules this season to direct teams in how and when they can hold out All-Stars from games for rest, often referred to as load management.
“This is ultimately about the fans,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “And that we’ve taken this [load management] too far. This is an acknowledgment that it has gotten away from us a bit.”
Silver said the new Player Participation Policy (PPP) was pursued by “everyone in the league,” including owners, management, coaches, the National Basketball Players Association, and specific players. It also was created with an eye on ticket-buying customers and NBA media rights holders, giving them a more reliable product and curtailing any “caveat emptor” concerns.
Speaking to reporters after two days of Board of Governors meetings in New York, the commissioner added: “That doesn’t mean we were turning the clock back, that players are expected to play through injuries or that players never need rest. But there’s a statement of a principle in this league that, if you’re a healthy player, you’re going to play.”
Too often in recent seasons, NBA stars and their teams have tried to limit injuries and the number of games the players might miss … by having those players miss games. It was a variation on how many coaches react to foul trouble – rather than risk having a player foul out, they remove him from the game. Either way, of course, they lose his services for the minutes he’s out.
Not having an injured player and resting a healthy player generally have similar competitive consequences. But the planned, willful nature of the latter approach has had reputational ones too. Choosing not to use a star who is capable of playing can hurt a game’s integrity, while TV viewers and fans in the arena feel cheated from seeing the teams and game as advertised.
Silver called the ruling a “changed approach to reinforcing the notion that we’re an 82-game league.”
In April, the league set an appearance minimum for players to be eligible for most major annual awards and honors, requiring them to play in at least 65 of the 82 regular-season games. That threshold was designed as an incentive for elite players to perform more often, driven by the prestige (and future contract firepower) of awards such as Most Valuable Player and distinctions such as All-NBA and All-Defensive honors.
In the first 62 years the NBA named an MVP, 32 of the recipients logged at least 80 games and only two winners (Bob Cousy in 1956-57 and Bill Walton in 1977-78) appeared in fewer than 90% of his team’s games. The past six seasons? Nikola Jokic’s 74 in 2021-22 tops the list; he notably appeared in all 72 of Denver’s games during a COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 campaign.
The rules approved Wednesday, by contrast, are focused on the teams, opening them up to league investigations and a scale of fines that could rapidly exceed $1 million for repeat offenders.
The new policy
Beginning this 2023-24 season, the new PPP mandates that teams:
- Rest no more than one star player from a game. (For purposes of the restrictions, a “star player” is defined as someone who has been an All-Star or an All-NBA selection in any of the past three seasons. It also will impact for the balance of the schedule players named to that season’s All-Star teams.)
- Make star players available for nationally televised games and In-Season Tournament games.
- Balance the number of one-game “rest” absences a star player accrues in home games vs. road games, with a recommendation that a player more often sit out at home.
- Refrain from any long-term “shutdown” when a star stops participating in games or appears only in a materially reduced role that could affect the integrity of the game.
- Have any healthy players resting for a game present and visible to fans.
The policy includes exceptions for injuries and personal absences, as well as pre-approved absences in back-to-back schedule circumstances based on a player’s age, career workload or serious-injury history.
For example, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and other players who are at least 35 years old on Opening Night or have appeared in 1,000 career games or logged more than 34,000 regular-season minutes will fall into this category. Their teams must notify the league in writing at least one week in advance explaining why the player’s participation will be limited.
The league office will have authority to conduct investigations and order independent medical reviews in the event of any questionable absences.
A team’s first PPP violation would carry a fine of $100,000, according to an ESPN report. A second offense would cost $250,000 and subsequent fines would escalate by $1 million per violation.
The NBA Board of Governors today approved a new Player Participation Policy, which is intended to promote player participation in the NBA’s regular season.
The new policy will take effect with the start of the 2023-24 regular season.
Full release ⬇️https://t.co/Yd7rH5664z
— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) September 13, 2023
Prior to the 2017-18 season, the NBA had instituted a Player Resting Policy. But its scope was considered too limited. Teams continued to rest multiple players from road games, for example, depriving fans in those cities from seeing some of the league’s biggest names, at some of sports’ heftiest prices.
Coaches and front-office defenders of load management commonly cited injury data and analysis for players’ reduced usage. But as Silver frequently noted – and reiterated Wednesday – such studies often have been inconclusive.
Playing too seldom, he said, has been shown to lead to many injuries as surely as playing too much. And injuries typically don’t increase in frequency or severity as a season plays out – presumably when more rest would be needed.
“I said this before, if the science were clearer that players should be resting, we would be favoring it,” Silver said.
Entering the 2023-24 season, 49 players are qualified as “stars” via All-Star or All-NBA selections in the past three years. They are scattered across 25 of the 30 teams, with 15 teams employing two or more. Those with at least two: Atlanta, Boston Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Golden State, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Sacramento.
- Silver said the NBA is gathering more information on Houston guard Kevin Porter Jr., arrested in New York this week after an alleged attack on his girlfriend that left her with a fractured neck vertebra. The four-year veteran pleaded not guilty to felony assault and strangulation charges Monday. Typically, the NBA delays discipline in criminal matters until law enforcement and court processes are complete.
- Asked how soon the league will know whether its new In-Season Tournament can be considered a success, the commissioner said: “It’s a multi-season issue, to the extent we’re looking to create a new tradition.” Attendance, social media chatter and TV ratings might provide indications, Silver said. “And then something a little less tangible, the energy on the floor,” he added. “If we’re seeing early indications of success, we’re going to see a little ratcheted-up intensity.”
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