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NBA players are a bunch of coddled pansies!

Hey! I paid good money to be entertained. I want the A team out there, not some 2nd stringers. Besides, I put out the Report every fricken morning, even when I have a hang nail.

Why the NBA’s Best Players Keep Sitting

As fans wring their hands over star players missing games, the league’s coaches, owners and commissioner agree on one thing: it seems to work.

By Robert O’Connell, WSJ

March 20, 2023 11:18 am ET

A generation ago, the NBA’s detractors complained that players “don’t play defense.” Today, as top stars routinely miss games to manage or prevent injuries, critics leave off the last word. With the 2022-23 regular season nearing its conclusion, the league finds itself performing a bothersome annual ritual: fighting off criticism from disappointed ticket buyers at arenas, bored at-home viewers and its own alumni.

“We survived playing in Chuck Taylors and flying commercial, for a lot less money,” said Hall of Fame forward and TNT rabble rouser Charles Barkley, at the league’s All-Star showcase in Salt Lake City last month. “To ask guys to play games…Come on, man. You make all that money, you have an obligation to the fans.”

Barkley’s sentiments surely resonate with a segment of his TV audience. Over the 2020s, NBA All-Stars have missed an average of 14.4 games per season, up from 9.7 the previous decade and 6.2 in the rough-and-tumble ’90s, according to Stats Perform.

The league’s stakeholders, though, increasingly refer to “load management” not as a fad but as a fact of life in the contemporary NBA. The decision to sit a player in March to keep him fresh for May pits a good show against sound competitive logic, workaday ticket holders against front-office strategists.

At its core, it reflects the attitude that has become professional sports’ bedrock: not the laziness of players but the optimization of organizations, the sense that no percentage should go unplayed in pursuit of a championship.

“I know it’s a big topic around the league,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in January, before keeping his team’s foundational trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green from playing in a second game in two nights. “We have so much more data, so much more awareness of players’ vulnerability. It’s proven that if a guy’s banged up, back-to-backs, players are much more likely to get injured and miss more games.”

“That’s why you’re seeing, leaguewide, everyone is being cautious when a guy’s banged up,” Kerr said. “You’re just playing the long game.”

At a news conference following the National Basketball Players Association’s winter meeting in February, union leadership emphasized that such decisions often don’t come from players themselves. NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio cited Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who at an earlier All-Star event had noted that teams usually have to convince players to sit out games against their own wishes.

“I never want to miss games. I want to play every game,” said Minnesota Timberwolves third-year All-Star Anthony Edwards in February—a benchmark he held himself to this season until an ankle injury last week forced him out of his first contest of the year.

Paul Oyer, a professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author of “An Economist Goes to the Game,” contextualizes the rise of load management as just one aspect of a generational shift in how professional sports approach a “collective action problem, in the sense that what’s good for a team trying to win is bad for the overall product of the league.”

“What’s happened in baseball, since I was a kid, is that teams have gotten much better at optimizing their strategy, but in a way that makes games less fun for fans,” Oyer said, referring to the analytically sound de-emphasizing of stolen bases and the primacy of the home run and strikeout. “Load management is the same thing. You’re optimizing for winning in the playoffs, at the expense of fans during the season.”

Anecdotally, the results have justified the approach. During the 2018-19 season, the Toronto Raptors held newly acquired All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard out of 22 games as he managed a lingering leg injury. Leonard played in every game in the postseason—where at least one off night between contests is guaranteed—on the way to winning a championship and the Finals MVP trophy. Last season, Curry sat out a smattering of games at the tail end of back-to-backs, upsetting road crowds in Detroit and New Orleans but helping preserve the then-34-year-old guard for the Warriors’ own title run.

Leonard now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, and his return this season from an ACL injury that caused him to miss all of 2021-22 has been another case study in the effects of selective absence. Leonard has played in just 43 of the Clippers’ 72 games, but the back-to-office plan has lately paid dividends. Since the calendar turned to 2023—a span of 34 games, of which he has played 27—Leonard has scored 27.6 points per game while reclaiming his former stature as one of the league’s most feared defenders.

Even those figures most directly affected by the fluctuating entertainment value of a regular-season NBA game see player rest less as a problem to be solved than as a variable to be accepted. At his All-Star news conference, Adam Silver—the commissioner currently negotiating both a new collective-bargaining agreement with players and a new television-rights deal with networks—acknowledged that teams and players care most about “performance for the playoffs.”

“The difficulty is, fans of that team want them to do that as well,” Silver said. He added, “If you had said that Steph Curry had missed these two games at this point earlier in the season, if it were that formulaic, and therefore he’d be healthy today, people would take that trade off.” (At the time, Curry was recovering from a leg injury that caused him to miss 11 consecutive games.)

Steve Ballmer, the owner of the Clippers, is trying to bring his team its first championship in franchise history and energize its fan base ahead of the planned opening of a new arena in 2024. “All we can ask is a certain amount of patience,” Ballmer said of supporters who have spent seasons not knowing whether Leonard and his All-Star colleague, Paul George, will play from night to night. “Hopefully we’ll have everybody healthy the rest of the season, and most importantly as we hit the playoffs.”

“Fans live for the regular season,” Ballmer said. “But they die for the playoffs.”

Kerr has proposed shortening the regular season by 10 games as a solution. Silver and Ballmer both noted that when the league did so over the 2020-21 season following the first waves of the pandemic—albeit in a condensed time frame—it had a negligible effect on players missing games.

Oyer said the calculus involved in designing the ideal season would involve more factors than number of games and length of calendar. Players are more athletic than ever before, he said, and playing a more demanding style. Nearly half of the NBA’s teams now average at least 18 miles run per game, according to the league’s tracking data. When the NBA first started charting the metric, during the 2013-14 season, no team did so.

Predicting whether the NBA will eventually opt to lighten its players’ scheduling load, though, Oyer was direct. “Every time you add a game, there’s more money,” he said. “Not once in the history of serious sports can I remember a season getting shorter.”

Write to Robert O’Connell at

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