With new policies and penalties, the NBA has made it clear that healthy players should be on the court.
No argument from the players, who insist they aren’t interested in sitting.
Some don’t like load management any more than the fans who wonder why some of the best athletes in the world so often need a night off. But they also want the league to understand that there are times — quite a few of them during Kawhi Leonard’s lone season in Toronto — when they have to listen to their bodies or their doctors.
“I was coming from an injury and you have to know the details of the doctor,” Leonard, now with the Los Angeles Clippers, said Monday. “But if the league is seeing or trying to mock what I did with the Raptors, they should stop because I was injured the whole year. But other than that, if I’m able to play, I’ll play basketball. I’ll work out every day in the summertime to play the game, not to sit and watch people play. No league policy is helping me to play more games.”
Some of Leonard’s absences in recent years are the type the NBA is looking to eliminate with its “ player participation policy ” that takes effect this season. He missed 22 games in 2018-19, the Raptors careful to avoid overuse after he returned from a thigh injury that limited him to nine games the previous season. The league believes those scheduled nights off, known as load management, have become too common — and potentially damaging if they drive away viewers.
“I think the league is trying to figure out ways to make our game better, to help grow the game, understanding that fan engagement is important for all of us,” said New Orleans guard CJ McCollum, the president of the players’ association. “As a fan of sports, when you go to a game, you want the stars to play. You’re paying a premium on the ticket … or maybe it’s the cable package or whatever you have, you want to see the best players play.”
The policy prevents teams, without approval, from resting multiple star players (defined as anyone who was an All-NBA or All-Star selection in the prior three seasons) in the same game, or sitting healthy ones in nationally televised or in-season tournament games.
The league threatened to investigate certain absences, with penalties that would surpass $1 million if a team has three violations.
“Obviously the NBA is always trying to find a way to get the best players playing. And why? Well, because we want people to tune in to their TVs and watch,” said Michael Malone, coach of the NBA champion Denver Nuggets. “And they’re going to watch when the best players show up every night and play.”
That has happened far too infrequently in recent years. Even as the league has reduced back-to-back games from teams’ schedules and limited and improved their travel, some top players rarely come close to 82 games. Players bear the brunt of the criticism from fans, even though Commissioner Adam Silver, well before the new policy was introduced in September, has said it’s often the teams deciding when they will be rested.
“I think the league’s approach in trying to get players to player more, I think that’s great. I’m trying to play as many games as I possibly can,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown said. “It don’t always be the players. I know that’s the narrative, that it’s the players that decide not to play. I won’t go into detail, but that’s not always the case.”
Another new policy is directed more toward them. The new collective bargaining agreement requires players, in most instances, to play in 65 regular-season games to be eligible for awards such as MVP or the All-NBA teams.
“I think there are guys across the league that may sit out because they don’t want to play or they want to rest or whatever it may be. But I think playing a minimum of 65 games, I think that’s smart for the league, for the fans, for everybody,” Miami’s Tyler Herro said. “This is a business at the end of the day. A lot of people come to watch us play. I wouldn’t want to be a fan that came to see me play and I’m not playing because I don’t want to.”
Marcus Smart won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season in Boston and certainly wouldn’t want to disqualify himself this season by missing too many games. But he knows he’ll need to miss some, and like Leonard, won’t be swayed by the league’s new rule.
“I can care less what anybody says about that, because they’re not out there throwing their body around like I am,” said Smart, now in Memphis. “So I don’t see how you can tell me when I should and shouldn’t play. If I don’t feel like I can play, then I’m not playing. But if I’m available and I can play, best believe I’m going.”