You sometimes have to go out of your way to support athletes. It’s not a long walk, and you’re not a hero for taking it, but if you were ruthless in your fandom, you’d hope to see players taking pay cuts in free agency and rendering themselves subservient to the team in ways that any thinking human being with physical and emotional needs of their own shouldn’t be expected to. You’d understand, say, Jim Boylen compelling his players to punch a clock when they show up to the practice facility, not as a demeaning and deeply silly exercise in reducing men to man-hours, but an inspired method for keeping everyone in line. These are your Chicago Bulls, after all, and you want them to work as hard as they possibly can.
This is the entitled arch-capitalist villain’s idea of what sports should be. It’s joyless and unreasonable and elides the fact that a good deal of the fun of following sports is not just watching your team play well and to the absolute best of their ability—because there’s a decent chance they don’t—but finding some level of empathy with the players: relating to their benign idiocy and delighting in their strange habits. This is the more rewarding way to follow the game. If you can’t get a kick out of something like J.R. Smith’s soup-throwing incident, you will find entirely too much frustration in your fandom. Better to laugh than furrow your brow, to be happy when one of your favorite guys gets paid, or supportive when they make a mistake. It’s easy generosity.
We might have an enlightening and psychologically fraught conversation about why “the NBA's hottest term” sounds like a white collar porno industry gig, but discomfiting nonsense sets in the sports lexicon like—well, anyway. The conversation we’re having instead is about whether load management protects player health or if teams are stealing ticket buyers’ money for no particular reason. That’s an unanswerable question, because the science isn’t in yet. Everybody’s operating on hunches and anecdotal evidence and the air is dense with ideology masquerading as fact. The Scrooge-core take is that the modern athlete is needlessly coddled. The more humanistic view is that the modern game is too punishing and the season is too long. One is more morally correct than the other, and it passes the common sense test, but on this topic, no one is obviously correct. We’re just stating thinly veiled political beliefs as a means of killing time between games. As is our wont.
The utility of this is dubious in all cases, but our nattering matters even less than usual, because most NBA teams have made up their minds on the issue. Whether setting up a mandated rest schedule for players is the right call or not, that’s what they’re doing, not out of blind benevolence but in hopes that a few strategic DNPs will help their stars put in their best performances when the games matter most in May and June. If they have to operate shorthanded in the second game of a back-to-back, that’s fine.
We’re at least several years away from knowing if this approach mitigates injuries a little, a lot, or not at all, but the fact that it’s being deployed is by itself an argument for either shortening the season or extending the league calendar. Though Adam Silver and his crew have already done that second thing—contests are less closely clustered than they have ever been—there’s nothing stopping them from spacing games even further apart. The obvious solution is to lop some 10 to 15 tilts off the schedule completely, but this is highly unlikely to happen due to a well-known phenomenon: if a rich person, whether a millionaire player or billionaire owner, turns down any opportunity to become marginally richer, they contract a deadly disease and expire within a month.
So what we’re left with is a situation that is, depending on where you’re standing, a shameless perversion or just kind of a bummer. We’re arguing degrees more than we’re taking up sides. Because it’s lousy that some folks are forking over hundreds of dollars to watch Kawhi Leonard play only to see him benched on short notice. Nobody involved is actively trying to do this, but coaches and players are in some fashion conning people out of an experience they paid handsomely to enjoy. You could argue they’re entitled to a modest refund—one which they will never, ever receive.
Taking the grand scheme into account, it’s hard to get severely upset about random games in the middle of a season being slightly worse than they could be. It’s like just missing a bus. You’ll get over it. And beyond that, labor and management are atypically aligned on the issue, which means outside opinion is almost entirely irrelevant. Unless in-arena attendance or television numbers take a serious hit, the NBA will remain unmoved. Maybe they’ll fine Doc Rivers for giving the game away, but they won’t tell him how to use his players.
Essentially, the league—players, owners, coaches, everybody with a Jerry West watermarked paycheck—has solved the load management conundrum by pushing all the pain of their bloated schedule onto fans. It’s not a travesty, but it is cynical and unfair. A consumer hazard, you could call it. All sorts of products are designed to suck a little bit, in ways that annoy people but don’t quite drive them away. The NBA is like that too. They get away with whatever we put up with. It’s smart business, which means somebody is getting screwed. On the wrong night, having just paid an exorbitant parking fee, checked the starting lineups, and cursed at your phone, it could be you.