A better solution for handling the NBA injury problem

In an excellent piece just published on ESPN.com entitled Too many games: The NBA’s injury problem is a scheduling one, Baxter Holmes and Tom Haberstroh argue convincingly that the NBA is causing its best players to break down physically at an increasing rate, and that the schedule is the problem.  On a TrueHoop podcast on the subject, Brian Windhorst made the point that while it may be true, the odds of the situation changing are slim to none, because of the money involved.  Windhorst pointed out that during collective bargaining, only a few issues can be given top priority, and that in order to win a concession on that point, the players would have to give up something else, and questioned whether a reduced *likelihood* of injury would be likely to get players to give up a *certain* portion of their salary.  Most importantly, the idea of shortening the season to, say, 74 games would mean about a 10% reduction in revenues, at least on the face of it, since the notion that the NBA could squeeze the same amount of money out of advertisers and ticket-buying fans for 10% fewer games would seem like a stretch.

So the upshot of the discussion was that because of the money, the season is going to stay an 82 game season, and the problem of an increasing rate of injury due to overwork won’t really be able to be addressed by the NBA.  The losers will be the players who get injured, the teams whose prospects get derailed by the loss of their best players to injury at crucial moments (hi there, Clippers), the advertisers who find fans not watching because the stars are out due to injury, and the fans who are treated to games in which a number of players aren’t able to put out full effort because they are just too exhausted or hurt to go all-out for 82 games (except, of course, for Russell Westbrook).

But it seems to me like there are a number of possible ways to tackle the problem that produce win-win-wins all around.

Let’s first consider a small tweak, that shouldn’t be particularly controversial, and then a big one that may be.  Both could go a long way to improving the situation.

So then, first, the easy part. It should be noted that part of the problem is not just the number of games, but the frequency of games.  Playing on the second night of back-to-back games is notoriously brutal.  So one simple, though slight adjustment, is this:  get rid of two weeks of preseason play and make the regular season two weeks longer.  This should help get rid of up to half a dozen back-to-backs during the season.  Following this line of thinking, it should also be possible to start the preseason and then the regular season a week earlier, and let each team have two 4-day breaks during the season, much in the way in the NFL teams have bye-weeks.  These breaks would be a big help in allowing guys to recover from exhaustion.  It might even be good for the NBA as a whole, by stimulating fans to watch other teams play while their team is on their rest break.

But wait, you say!  A shorter preseason means less time for teams to work on strategy and execution.  Maybe so, but I’ve been watching the NBA for several decades now, and I can’t imagine that early season games would be so much more ragged than they are now for the loss of a couple of weeks of preseason nonsense.

This solution also would, I think, be likely to increase interest and revenue for the NBA.  Why?  Because to be honest, only the most die-hard NBA fans can stomach NBA preseason games.  For big stretches of preseason games, guys aren’t really trying and the best players play limited minutes, often with unusual lineups.  Yeah, maybe the shorter preseason gives teams less time to try out the guys who will make up the end of the bench, but there’s an NBA D-league to help with that, and various provisions could be made to allow practice squads or larger rosters for a couple of weeks into the season.  That part can be figured out.

In exchange for cutting out a couple of weeks of preseason, you now have an only slightly longer regular season, and NBA fans will spend more time, again, watching teams other than their home team play in games that mean something, at least to the extent that games in an 82-game regular season can mean something.  That’s a couple of more TNT Thursday nights and a couple more ESPN Friday nights, NBA-TV Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings on ABC (or whoever owns the rights going forward).  That is, more money for everyone, not less.

Ok, so that’s a minor tweak, and there should be room to fool around with it and make things a tad easier on the players.

Then there’s the bigger tweak:

Coaches can only play their players a maximum of 74 regular season games.  They must juggle DNP-rest games for every guy on the roster.  But they can only have at most two DNP-rest players in any given game, to avoid them from just totally writing off games against specific teams, and pissing off everyone who came expecting to see a real game.

This approach offers a number of advantages, aside from reduced wear-and-tear on the top players.  For one thing, it rewards teams who manage their available resources well, because now the ninth, tenth and eleventh guys on the bench start to have a bigger impact on your regular season record, because they are going to get a lot more playing time.  It adds a big element of strategy and planning, the specifics of which might be shaped by particular rules like, for example, a prior notice requirement about who will be rested, or some such.  By mandating the rest, it helps coaches who may know their stars need more rest but can’t convince said stars to take time off without generating a lot of resentment.

There’s another, even more compelling reason for this approach.  It’s not known what pattern of rest will be most effective at reducing injury.  Presumably, different training staffs will have different points of view on this question.  Some may think giving guys long stretches of rest will be best, others will want to give more shorter breaks more often.  Some of the data from wearable sensors may play into the decision making.  With 30 different clubs trying different approaches, we’ll have a lot of experimentation going on.  While the flip side of this will be that we may not have large enough sample size to definitively identify the optimal approach, trends will become apparent in the data that may help determine the best hypotheses about what works best for more definitive/controlled tests.  The bottom line is, this gives teams freedom to find what works best for them, and may lead to some very valuable discoveries on that point.

Of course, it may also let them find out what does not work.  For example, it’s likely that some coaches, particularly the less secure among them, may react by having their other top players play more minutes in games where key guys are out, which could potentially defeat the purpose.  Since injury has unpredictable aspects, and vulnerability to injury may accumulate imperceptibly over time, it may be tough to identify the impact of such a strategy early on, but if this were continued for several seasons, as above, trends might become apparent.  Again, data from wearable sensors may provide key insights along the way.

There are other impacts, likely positive.  By giving more guys the chance to start through the course of the season, and giving more minutes overall deeper into the bench, it would give guys who might otherwise not be able to develop their games to the same extent the chance to do so.  It would very likely make teams more resilient, deeper, and better as a whole, something that could pay dividends in the playoffs too.  It would increase the chance that guys could make the jump from mediocre to meaningful contributor, and could increase team cohesion and engagement, since everyone would be more important to the overall team success.  It would reward better coaching to a greater extent.  And of course, it would very likely increase the intensity  with which each guy who was playing could, and therefore would, play, making for more intense competition.

To the objection that fans pay top dollar to see their favorite stars, and would be upset to go to a game only to find, say, LeBron James or Steph Curry on DNP-rest status consider that the whole point is to insure much stronger effort from each guy who is playing, for the whole season.  More to the point, if it could be shown that the reduction in games for each player reversed the trend toward more missed games due to injury, it would be possible to demonstrate to fans that on the whole the move increased the likelihood that they’d see the top stars playing.

This is relevant, of course, to the other major constituencies, the advertisers and networks.  The objection might be made that with fewer games with top stars in them, ratings might suffer.  But this is where analytics come in, as above.  The whole point of this solution is to *increase* the total number and quality of games that the best players perform in overall.  Blake Griffin missed a lot of time this year.  Kobe Bryant missed a lot of time over the last few years.  The list of lost games by big stars and key contributors goes on and on, and the Holmes and Haberstroh piece demonstrates both the problem, and the fact that it’s getting worse.  Given a big pool of data over the last few years, it will be possible very quickly – say in one or two years – to demonstrate whether the greater rest results in more, not fewer, games per player on average.  If so, then the corporate constituencies should be satisfied that a key problem has been solved.  More importantly, businesses like to reduce their exposure to risk wherever possible, and by reducing the risk of injury to top stars, sponsors, advertisers, and networks all would be reducing the risk of big losses due to unforseen prolonged injury of top players (and pitchment).

Of course, it would be predictable that teams would rest their top players against the weakest competition, meaning that ticket-buying fans of teams like this year’s Lakers or 76’ers might never get to see LeBron or Steph or KD or in fact the best of any of the top NBA players play.  Well, maybe so.  But wouldn’t that make those games more competitive, potentially giving the weaker team a better shot at winning?  And if there were a cap on the number of players who could be given DNP-rest each game, but every player would HAVE to get DNP-rest a certain number of games in the season, then teams would be spared games like those Spurs game the last few years in which all the starters somehow came up a bit gimpy all at once.  You could reduce the number of required DNP-rest games for guys who missed more than a certain number of games due to injury or other DNP causes – like Tim Duncan’s DNP-old of this year, but maybe not one-for-one to prevent coaches from holding out bunches of players simultaneously.

There are a lot more hypothetical objections that are likely to come up, and we can deal with them as they do.  The point is that this solution provides a template that solves both the money problem – teams still get the same gate and advertiser revenue because the total number of games is the same, and players get the same amount of money but get to play fewer games – and the injury problem.  All while increasing the importance of, to use a phrase in great favor in the Bay Area these days, strength in numbers.  It should be the kind of thing that both the players union and the owners could agree on in collective bargaining, and that other constituencies – fans, sponsors, networks – could be convinced improves the quality of the games and the longevity of the stars we all love to watch.

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