Perhaps before it sounded like a favor, like prodding and negotiation.
Now it seems like a demand, or at the very least, an expectation from NBA executive vice president Joe Dumars.
He said it more than that on an hourlong conference call with select media Wednesday afternoon, along with Evan Wasch, NBA senior vice president and head of data strategy and analytics, i.e. the brains behind the in-season tournament which will debut this December.
Dumars and the league operate with the knowledge the season comes in waves: the start to the season, Christmas ramping things up, the trade deadline and All-Star weekend, then the finish to the regular season.
In between that time are various stages of dog days, essentially, that has led many to suggest the NBA should shorten its season to something more palatable. To something that would prevent the dreaded phrase that has made its way into the regular basketball lexicon: “load management.”
Wasch didn’t have an exact estimate, but suspected if the new Player Participation Policy was in place last season, around “two dozen” instances would’ve been investigated.
The policy is as follows:
Under the policy, unless a team demonstrates an approved reason for a star player not to participate in a game, then, among other things, the team must:
Manage its roster to ensure that no more than one star player is unavailable for the same game.
Ensure that star players are available for all national television and NBA in-season tournament games.
Maintain a balance between the number of one-game absences for a star player in home and road games.
Refrain from any long-term “shutdowns” in which a star player stops playing games.
If resting a healthy player, ensure the player is present at the games and visible to fans.
Teams must also share medical information of players with the league, which hasn’t happened before now, so the league can determine the validity of claims when and if players wind up sitting during marquee games.
Not every player or marquee player will fall under this purview. For example, No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama will not have to abide by this rule because he’s not a current All-Star or All-NBA member in the last three years.
Only about 50 players fall under the umbrella, but the league will probably still keep a close eye on any chicanery.
Dumars referred to everyone involved as “stakeholders,” and said it multiple times. The inference is the league office can’t just stand alone in looking after the best interest of the league, for the present and its future.
The players are stakeholders, as well as front offices and coaching staffs. It comes up during collective bargaining talks, because money is on the line. But rarely is it mentioned in between, during those years of labor peace.
However, the league is clearly at an inflection point even as revenues continue to grow and salaries escalate for the best players. Dumars chuckled and couldn’t even try to deflect when asked if the league’s television partners and a looming broadcast deal had something to do with the increased focus on participation.
“Yeah, yes … I can’t [lie],” Dumars said with a laugh. “That’s a part of it. To pretend it isn’t would just be dishonest.”
Of course, the money matters.
“I think how you get to the point that we’re at right now … by not addressing it,” Dumars said. “You get here about by slippage. By just slowly, year after year after year, it doesn’t happen like in one year, just slowly over time.”
It began with Gregg Popovich being cute with the NBA’s schedule-makers, sending his players home on a back-to-back, with the second game being in Miami on national TV for an NBA Finals rematch.
He also got cute with resting the aging Tim Duncan by filling out the score sheet: DNP — old, which drew plenty of laughs considering Duncan was clearly on the back end of a stellar career.
But like anything that can create a competitive advantage, it was copycatted by teams, by players, by whomever. The science was often the reason, but Dumars said the data has turned — that injuries aren’t increased by playing on back-to-backs, but player effectiveness has been affected.
“We’re not always looking at it and saying, well, teams were selfish or acting in self-interest,” Wasch said. “It was maybe a lack of awareness of the impact of some of their decisions on the broader collective.”
That latter part is a function of playing 82 games. Some nights will be better than others, but it’s no excuse to not play. And Dumars makes sure to note, telling players to play come hell or high water is not the directive.
“This is not a [demand] that you got to go out and play 82 games and drag yourself out there. That’s not what that means,” Dumars said. “If a guy is hurt, if a guy’s injured, if a guy is beat up and battered and banged up and he needs a day off, that guy’s going to take a day off. And he deserves to.
“But the healthy guy that’s in this league, that’s not injured. We expect that guy to play. And that’s not asking anyone to do anything incredible.”
It means things are re-centered, or at least that’s what the league is trying to accomplish. When visiting teams during training camp, there were three points of emphasis: player participation, the in-season tournament and the All-Star Game.
Clearly, the league wants to make sure its players are engaged for the marquee events. Perhaps the in-season tournament will usurp the All-Star Game, but as of now, the February weekend ranks behind only the playoffs and Finals in terms of importance to the league, where the eyeballs matter.
Last year’s All-Star Game, like many others save for 2020, was panned by fans and media for lack of competition. It was the lowest-rated All-Star Game in the last 10 years, a trend the league does not want to continue.
Whether the players took their eyes off the ball or the teams were operating in their own best interest, it’s gone awry and perhaps in an extreme way.
“I think people expect to see some competition,” Dumars said. “There is a happy medium somewhere between a hard-fought playoff game and what you saw last year.”
Dumars was a fixture in the All-Star Game in the ’90s. There were its share of blowouts, but most had a competitive enough feel to them. At times, players would huddle up at halftime and make a pact to go harder, because the prize money for the winner was a decent amount more than it was for the loser.
That incentive no longer seems to stick.
And in general, player salaries are skyrocketing to the point perhaps they don’t feel an overarching responsibility to the league. The concerns were valid enough, long enough for the NBA to implement this soccer-style in-season tournament because it didn’t feel players and teams took the process of the regular season seriously.
“When you hear that a guy has been scheduled to rest three months from now, like what are we doing?” Dumars queried. “You see the slippage, you have to address it.”