When the NBA Finals tip off Thursday night Stephen Curry will be playing in his 96th game of the season and LeBron James will be playing in his 465th game since the start of the 2010-11 season.
Because of these totals and the increased wear and tear on players, there is a growing sentiment among people in the NBA that the season is too long.
James took a two-week break in the middle of the season. Gregg Popovich, long known for resting his Spurs players in-season, rested his star players more often and earlier than every before in 2014-15. This is a problem for a league where fans and TV networks pay a lot of money to see the best players.
Prior to the season, when the NBA toyed with the idea of shortening the length of games, James was adamant that the real problem is the number of games.
“No. It’s not the minutes, it’s the games,” James told ESPN.com. “We can play 50-minute games if we had to. It’s just the games. We all as players think it’s too many games. In our season, 82 games is a lot.”
The counter-argument is that the NBA has been using an 82-game regular season since the late 1960s and a four-round playoff format since the mid-1970,s and it was never a problem for great players in previous generations.
On one of his final ESPN podcasts, Bill Simmons argued that the NBA season may be the same length as it was in the 1980s, but it is not the same game and the toll it takes on players is far greater today.
“I wonder if the guys just play harder from game to game now,” Simmons said. “I was watching [old games] and I was just watching how casually they played defence in the 80s. They would turn it up in the last six minutes of playoff games but for the most part you just played offence, kind of half-heartily jog around guys, maybe in the low post you shove people. But you can’t do that in 2015 and everybody plays really hard and you have to run out on shooters all the time, more ground to cover, and if you don’t give a crap and you mail in a possession or a play, you end up like Otto Porter standing there like a jackass while his guy runs away and you’re on ‘Shaqtin’ a Fool.’ So there is this pressure to just go [all] out all the time…It’s not sustainable. You’re going to lay in the runway. You’re going to fall on your wrist. Your knee is going to act up. You’re going to be playing through some injury and pretend you don’t have it and I just wonder if these guys go too hard and do we have to reduce the season now.”
Simmons’ comment can certainly be nitpicked and may be overly simplistic. Many people believe Simmons’ own Larry Bird had his career cut short because he played hard all the time instead of picking his spots and late in his career was often seen laying on the court when he wasn’t in the game. Others may argue that Simmons is not giving previous generations enough credit for their defence.
But the other points remain valid.
More games are on national television than ever before and a player doing something foolish on the court is one YouTube user away from being seen by millions and picked up by SportsCenter.
There are also more stats than ever before to judge how valuable a player is. In the 1980s, a star player need only worry about getting his 25 points or 12 assists. Steals and blocks were the only way to measure defence.
Nowadays a player’s entire performance is judged every night and it not only impacts the highlight reel, it also impacts how much money they make.
And then there is the new style of play, with more 3-pointers than ever before. This season, teams averaged 22.4 3-point shots per game. In 1984-85, that number was 3.1 per game.
This means, as Simmons points out, there is a lot more court to cover on defence which means players are moving and running farther than ever before.
This all adds up to an NBA where there is probably more physical demand on a player’s body than ever before, something that could be remedied with fewer games.
Of course, before the NBA shortens the season they need to figure out a way to make up for the corresponding loss in ticket and television revenue. One way would be to sell the television rights to a mid-season, soccer-like tournament. But until that happens, the season will remain 82 games long.
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