If ever there was a perfect example of the differences between David Stern and Adam Silver as NBA commissioners, the issue of resting star players during high-profile national TV games is it.
The San Antonio Spurs brought rest into the mainstream back in 2012, or at least tried to, when Gregg Popovich elected to send four stars home early on a road trip. That resulted in the Spurs’ B-team facing the Miami Heat in a major regular-season game on TNT. Stern, who didn’t like being caught flat-footed in controversy, smacked the Spurs with a $250,000 fine. Lesson learned from the Spurs: Ration rest carefully.
Except that the backlash against Stern’s actions was so strong, the Spurs did basically the same thing a year later with no fine levied.
Stern had fined the Spurs under the guise of a vague rule barring teams from resting players “in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.” That rule remains in place. Silver, who succeeded Stern in 2014, threatened to use it last year after the Warriors rested their stars for a Saturday prime-time game against the Spurs.
Silver didn’t fine anyone, though. Unlike Stern, Silver started with a public warning in reaction to violation of that old capricious power Stern had wielded.
Given the renewed interest in resting stars during the regular season to keep them healthy for the playoffs, the NBA was proactive this summer. In building the 2017-18 regular-season schedule, the league sought to reduce the calendar quirks that lead teams to rest stars. Fewer national TV showcase games come on the wrong side of back-to-backs.
In addition, Silver is seeking a stronger fix via rule changes. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that the NBA’s competition committee is considering rules that would punish teams who rest “key players” for national TV games, or teams that rest multiple key players in any road game.
Since the competition committee is also taking on tanking, there is a perception that the rest rules would matter there, too. That hardly seems likely. With the exception of the Knicks and Lakers, the worst teams in the NBA are rarely on national TV. If a player like Eric Bledsoe is ruled out for weeks to improve the team’s chances of losing, a team like Phoenix will simply make up an injury and trust the NBA won’t investigate.
The rest rules are about two entities that the NBA can’t do without on national TV: the Warriors and LeBron James.
With apologies to James Harden and Russell Westbrook (who each played 81 games last season), the Warriors and LeBron are the draws for casual fans in the regular season. When the Warriors essentially bow out of a prime-time game on ABC, the brand suffers. When LeBron sits out a Thursday night TNT game, the audience suffers. The league needs them out there 30 times a season to keep up its end of the lucrative broadcast deal, at least until the playoffs start.
But how do you legislate anti-rest rules against two entities without being unfair? You can start where Silver did, by offering your own concessions first. Only two of the Warriors’ 31 national TV games (not counting NBA TV) are the second games of back-to-backs. The Cavaliers have two national TV games with no rest out of 27.
As long as the two teams use road games on local TV as resting opportunities and avoid sitting multiple players at once, they should avoid sanctions and this whole controversy should disappear.
With that tentatively solved, perhaps the league could focus on the underlying issue: its reliance on a few superstars to draw eyeballs during the regular season.
Beyond the Warriors and LeBron, the NBA has done a good job of getting Harden, Westbrook, and Kawhi Leonard in front of national TV audiences. (With the Spurs, it’s sometimes hard to know whether the league wants to expose casual fans to Kawhi or cash in on those sweet Gregg Popovich viral moments.)
But the NBA isn’t doing the hard work of getting Giannis Antetokounmpo out there for everyone to see. The Bucks have only nine national TV games this season. Anthony Davis and the Pelicans are on only eight times. The Timberwolves and Sixers will increasingly be in your face this year, and that’s smart. Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid are potential future faces of the league, much like Antetokounmpo and Davis.
Showcasing the Warriors and LeBron is taking money on the table right now. These proposed rule changes ensure that money stays on the table by forcing the Warriors and LeBron to show up every time out.
Just as much effort should be going into making the world care as deeply about the next generation of showcase stars as it does about this one.