Professional sports is not the easiest way to earn a living. That was part of what Richard Jefferson was trying to get at during his viral rant after Adam Silver dained to consider the idea of shortening the NBA season. Jefferson was drafted in 2001 and to his credit, the first 10 seasons of his 17 in the NBA he played 80 or more regular season games six times, 79 once.
However, his career completely changed after his seventh season. In season eight his field goal percentage dropped from 46.6 percent from the field to 43.9, and his scoring average fell by three points. From then on, he would be a role player in the NBA after once being a dependable 20 point scorer on an Eastern Conference champion, because while recovery and nutrition weren’t quite in 2005 what they are in 2022, the NBA grind is still a beast.
That grind does, as Jefferson explained, does help separate the pros from the joes, but it also grinds away at the product of NBA basketball. Sure cryotherapy and normatecs make recovery easier, but players are still flying all over the country, landing in the middle of the night to play NBA games on quick turnarounds. Harvard University Medical director of sleep medicine Dr. Charles Czeisler told Tom Haberstroh that the NBA is sleep depriving its players with the crazy schedule, even with the reduced number of back to backs and extended all star break. He compared it to asking the players to play drunk.
“It makes no sense to me. These guys are so extraordinarily talented, and it’s a shame that they’re being impaired. It’d be like the NBA saying, ‘OK, let’s see how they do if we starve the players. OK, let’s see how they do if we make them all drunk before they play, so everybody has to do six shots before they do the game.’ Would anyone in their right minds consider that?”
When Jefferson castigated the players on television, it came off portraying the players as entitled and coddled — he actually said coddled twice. Stephen A. Smith much less so. He was talking more so about how a handful of players taking rest days when they’re not injured can come back to hurt the players during collective bargaining, but he still placed the onus for change on the players. NBPA president — and New Orleans Pelicans guard — CJ McCollum has been on First Take all week. He argued that it’s not always the players who pull themselves. Many times management schedules the off-days. Never forget, the San Antonio Spurs made this practice famous, back when Gregg Popovich would regularly sit Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker during nationally televised games.
Take a look at the Milwaukee Bucks final game of the 2021-22 regular season. They had a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed in the East with a win. The Bucks went with a starting lineup of Jordan Nwora, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Thanais Antetokounmpo, Jevon Carter and Jrue Holiday. Either most of the starters and key reserves decided individually or as a group to not play in that game, or more likely the coaches and/or management made the call to keep nearly any player who might contribute in the postseason out of the game.
It’s always easier to yell and scream at the entitled basketball player. It makes for better television, and sometimes it’s the instinctive move. Jefferson isn’t the young high-flyer out of Arizona anymore. He’s 41 years old. Smith has plenty of blame to dish out for anyone at any time, so maybe he should be more intentional in lobbing that criticism towards NBA upper management. Shortening the season could make the folks out of uniform more willing to play their best players all year round. And for the handful of Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and 2018 Kawhi Leonard situations that occur, those can be handled individually.
If the NBA believes that a lack of star power on random nights is why national television ratings aren’t where the league feels they should be, then shortening the schedule could be a meaningful step. The giant 82-game regular season slate, much like the 162 game schedule in baseball, is hard to hold interest through six months of play with endless streaming options available on television. Knocking some games off the schedule in either league could make them feel more important and therefore potentially generate more viewership per contest which could make more money in the long run. If leagues believe this to truly be a problem.
MLB just redid their national television contracts and received record numbers just like the NFL did. The NBA is up next and with ESPN and Turner leaning harder and harder into live events — TNT and TBS are doing away with scripted programming — it shouldn’t be hard for the league achieve its goal of tripling the price by maintaining the status quo.
Silver might be worried about the 10-year contract after that because who knows literally what the world will look like at that point. If he can present some data that shows more advertising revenue will reach more eyeballs with a 65-72 game schedule than go for it. That’s still a lot of games to expect people to watch.
Financially, the move is to stay mostly with the status quo, but make little tweaks like the play-in tournament. But for the pundits on television, there’s a reason Isiah Thomas didn’t play nearly as long as Chris Paul and Michael Jordan — after two retirements — still couldn’t produce for as many seasons as LeBron James. The 82 games and four playoff rounds are brutal. Guys play longer now because medicine has improved, but the grind is the grind. Players will need breaks to get through their sleep deprived lives in the most optimal way possible. So don’t get all riled up at them for doing what they need to do to have the longest, most effective career possible, or for what management is mandating that they do.