The point of the NBA regular season is that there’s a lot of it. There are 82 games because if there were only 50, State Farm would pay the league considerably less to sponsor its basket stanchions and run commercials during timeouts, ticket revenue would no longer dwarf arena operating expenses, LeBron would make 20-something million dollars per year instead of 40-something, franchise values might take a hit. The NBA regular season is a product, more than anything else, an innings-eater for TV networks and a way to sell beer and nachos and parking 41 nights per year. We don’t need 82 contests to come up with roughly representative playoff seedings or for players to get into a rhythm and develop a rapport with their teammates. All of that could be accomplished over the course of a few months or spread out comfortably—zero back-to-backs, players uniformly well-rested—across the seven-month span the season currently covers. But that would require a haircut neither capital nor labor will ever voluntarily submit to, even though nearly everybody involved in this enterprise is rich as hell.
And so what we have is this wide, durable expanse of dubiously consequential action. That sounds bleaker than it is. It’s generally a good thing that, if you want to spend your evening watching professional basketball between mid-October and mid-April, you can make that happen. It’s a stream you stroll alongside and dip into five times a week or only occasionally. You absolutely do not need to watch Hornets-Mavs on a Wednesday, but depending on your mood, it might be exactly what you need.
Such that there’s a problem with this, it’s that players have to show up for all of it, whether we’re tuning in or not. Load management is a tacit acknowledgement that every damn night is an unreasonable ask, but the guys sitting off to the side in street clothes, enjoying not having to fight Joel Embiid on the boards or try to stay in front of Dame Lillard, are still in certain respects subject to the grind: the travel, the meetings, the near-constant working state the NBA requires. Sometimes, maybe all the time, you just really don’t want to be in Indianapolis. But that is part of the gig.
This relentlessness tends to wear lighter on younger players, who are still thrilled to be making millions playing ball and are more apt to be struck by the novelty of their second or third time in Milwaukee or Orlando. There are bars and women everywhere, most cities are alright when you’re still getting to know them, and 21-year-olds are, by and large, easily amused idiots. The vets are typically over it, killing time with midday naps and counting down the days until the road trip is over, until the All-Star Break, until the playoffs begin. They’re less grateful for the job, which isn’t new to them anymore, and conceive of the fall and winter months more as an opportunity to get hurt or worn down than one for growth or development. They just want to get to April in reasonably good shape and lock in for the two months that actually matter.
Most squads are a mix of young and old, unproven and accomplished, and so the energy among the players is mixed. They are maybe not a bus full of teens on their way to Six Flags, but they have enough enthusiasm to traverse the regular season without succumbing completely to boredom and ennui. The Lakers, in case you haven’t heard, are extremely heavy with veterans who have no interest in non-playoff ball. Even their anomalous young fella, Talen Horton-Tucker, just signed an extension and so isn’t playing for future money. LeBron is 36, Carmelo is 37, Rondo’s 35, and Anthony Davis almost ruptures his Achilles three times per game. Russell Westbrook, 33, gives a full effort every single minute but in some ways you would prefer if he didn’t. It’s not a roster that’s built for or interested in, say, a Sunday night tilt against the Pistons in Detroit.
This is not to glibly explain LeBron recently losing it on Isaiah Stewart. (Who was then prevented by 27 other men from fully losing it on LeBron.) Guys shove each other around, feelings get hurt, it’s all normal enough. But LeBron and his charges are blatantly miserable, in the Christ, is it still Tuesday? phase of a workweek they didn’t want to show up for in the first place. The Lakers were, like almost everyone else, banged up in the playoffs last year and it might have cost them a title. This was dumb luck, the wrong things happening at the wrong time, but it did not exactly set them up to attack this season with alacrity. They’ve told themselves they can beat this task, get into the postseason at whatever-and-whatever, with nothing more than professionalism but the drudgery has already set in. They’re the grumpiest team in the league.
The media won’t ignore them—what do you think we’re doing right now?—because they’re the Lakers but barring some spectacular collapse, we probably should. The regular season is not for teams like them, and it offers so much more in terms of the groups that are striving, who haven’t done anything important yet and understand this surfeit of basketball as an opportunity to open some eyes and have some fun. Think last year’s Knicks, this year’s Cavs, Hornets, Wizards, and Grizz. Hell, the Wolves aren’t half-bad. These are the teams to spend this ample time with, as certain contenders grumble and guard themselves. They’re entitled to do that, maybe it even makes sense, but there’s no point in exposing yourself to that sort of aggravation, not by choice. Life is too short and the season’s too long. There’s precious little room for suffering.