Ravaged by a plague of injuries, the 2013-14 season in the National Basketball Association has been a particularly agonizing one for players and fans alike, with some feeling the hurt more than others, in part due to the effects of another eight-month transcontinental season schedule that pulls no punches.
The championship-contending Oklahoma City Thunder saw point guard Russell Westbrook return from a knee injury sustained last year only to re-injure the same knee after a handful of games. Long-term knee injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol and Eric Bledsoe have drastically redefined the season goals of the Bulls, Celtics, Grizzlies and Suns, respectively. Even the usually dominant Los Angeles Lakers have seen serious injuries wreak havoc on half their roster, including all-time stars Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, to the point where they oddly didn’t have five eligible players to finish last night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Al Horford, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul; the list goes on, and it seems no team is safe.
With so many – especially non-contact – injuries occurring to some of the world’s most fit athletes, perhaps it has something to do with the league’s grueling 82-game regular season schedule. From preseason to the Finals, the NBA runs from October through June and it’s not uncommon for players to play four games in five nights or five games within a week.
So when the inevitable fatigue sets in from this eight to nine month, cross-country endeavor, tired offensive cuts and defensive slides result in compensation injuries, where weaknesses force over-reliance on other parts of the bodies. Not to mention a culture of masculinity and profit model that encourages individuals to play hurt or rush back from injury.
So why have such a tenuous schedule at the physical expense of players and, transitively, the psychic expense of fans? More overall games mean more televised games, which means larger TV contracts, which means larger league profits. Though individual NBA players and games may suffer, the league and its owners can still squeeze out the maximum amount of revenue from partnerships with networks – admittedly, this does ultimately benefit many players as well, in the ability of owners to offer larger salaries.
NBA players, coaches and writers have all said a shortened season spread out among the same time period would benefit the game. More time for rest and practice in between games would raise the quality of the NBA product when the teams do take to the hardwood. Consequently, ticket-purchasing fans actually get their money’s worth, rather than bear witness to players tiredly walking the ball up the court. The league saw the reverse effect during lockout shortened seasons, in terms of quality of play, when games were crammed into a tighter time period and players were exhausted by the diminished time for rest between games and travel, in a league that already suffers from a lazy regular season reputation. So logically, more rest would result in higher-energy, more competitive games, as well as fewer injuries.
Not only would more rest benefit the players and the in-game product, but a 58-game schedule in which all teams played each other once at home and once away (ala the British Premier League) would produce a more meritocratic result, compared to the current format in which teams play each other differing amounts depending on their division, resulting in differing strengths of schedule.
Ultimately, a less demanding schedule, whether just 58 games or 66 or 78, would benefit the health of NBA players, the quality of regular season games and ultimately produce a fairer result. In lieu of the recent epidemic of injuries, it stands to be seen if the league will lend a sympathetic ear to these calls.