The NBA's new rules on games played requirements for awards could lead to a shift from load management to minutes management, which would benefit players, fans, and bettors alike
The NBA has been tackling an issue for a few years that it just can’t seem to solve. The bulk of its fans and players love the NBA playoffs, but the same cannot be said of the regular season. Fans on social media will tune in come May and June but will often tune out in the winter months, with interest starting to rise after the All-Star break. Players in turn, playing in half-full arenas have started to miss more games in the name of load management, a term that has entered into the lexicon of most sports fans.
This season, the NBA has made efforts to try and make more fans care more about the regular season and to make players and teams care more about it as well. The first step was to implement the new in-season tournament, a measure to make regular season games in November and December more meaningful. The second measure has been to place a qualifier of 65 games played for a variety of awards and All-NBA selections. Due to the contract implications of these honors in many cases, the thinking is that load management will be minimized and players that are healthy will play even if it is on a Wednesday night in January. Ultimately, the NBA wants the regular season to matter and for that to happen its best players need to be made available. But lost in the games played requirement, is the potential for a loophole where players focus on total minutes played, which could be a win for both fans and players.
We’ll See Come Playoff Time
Every NBA season, fans seem to be tuned in to TNT’s national pregame show “Inside the NBA”. The show is critically acclaimed, having won 17 Sports Emmy Awards, and has become a part of basketball culture in the United States. A big reason for its popularity is the personality clash between Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley. Both men were household names in the NBA during the 1990s, but are viewed differently through the lens of all-time greatness. The Athletic published their top 75 players of all-time last year. On that list, O’Neal is ranked 8th, while Barkley is placed at 22.
From a career average perspective, the players are shockingly similar (Barkely averaged 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists per game while O’Neal averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assist). And yet, Barkley is often disregarded next to O’Neal. A driving force behind this sentiment is ring culture in the NBA. We worship championships more than anything else, and it is evident in the way that we judge players historically. If you are a young professional basketball player, you have been exposed to the worship of players like Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron and they have been worshiped not only because they were great, but they were great and won titles in their prime.
With this in mind, modern NBA superstars know that they are judged by their individual merits as well as their team accomplishments. They have also seen how much the regular season has been devalued by both the media and fans. When they are bombarded with analysts and writers saying that all of it doesn’t matter unless it happens in the playoffs, it will lead teams to make sure that their players are as healthy as possible come playoff time. This is the environment that has fostered the creation of load management. To strategically rest players throughout the regular season, to preserve them for the games that “matter” in the playoffs.
But the issue with these rules now becomes that with games played becoming a requirement for awards, contract eligibility becomes a concern for elite players. The NBA’s richest contract designation, called the supermax, has three potential qualifiers for a player to be offered it from a team:
Be named to an All-NBA team in the most recent season or twice in the last three seasons
Be named Defensive Player of the Year in the most recent season or twice in the last three seasons
Be named MVP in any of the last three seasons
All of these awards will require a 65 game played limit. Of the 12 players that received MVP votes, 6 of the players were either under the 65 game threshold or were a game above it (this was the case for eventual winner Joel Embiid). The same can be said for All-NBA voting where 5 of the 15 players to be selected played less than 65 games. These awards directly impact the potential earnings of a player, so we will see more stars playing in more games but the amount of time that they are in the games might not be as consistent as we are used to.
A Win for Players and Fans
Load management is often associated with games missed, but with the changes in awards qualifications we could see it be more focused on total minutes played. Let’s say a star player plays 60 games with load management as a concern. This player likely averages anywhere between 35-40 minutes per game. This equates to between 2100-2400 minutes in the regular season. But to qualify for awards the 65-game threshold has to be met. So what is the solution? Treating a player's regular season minutes like a baseball pitcher's pitch count could be the answer.
In games where a team is on the second night of a back-to-back on a Wednesday night in Charlotte, perhaps having a star player play just the first half or on a 20-minute limit. This would allow the player to meet the minimum games played requirement while still keeping their total wear and tear in check, leading to fresher players when the playoffs arrive. This also allows teams to play their younger talent for extended minutes that are more valuable than at the tail end of a blowout. While this means that per game averages might suffer, it will still keep players fresh for the games that they truly care about in the postseason.
Doing this could lead to a more favorable viewing of players in the eyes of fans as well. In the load management era, many fans have lamented the fact that their favorite players were resting in road games. While a visit to play a struggling Pistons team might be cause for a player like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard to take the night off, those home fans had one opportunity to see that player, and load management took that away from them. By pivoting to playing limited minutes in that same situation, at the very least those away fans get to see their favorite player once a year instead of leaving the game disappointed and lamenting on the state of the modern NBA player and his priorities.
This small measure could also send a message that the NBA and its players do in fact care about the regular season. We have seen the tide start to turn with a newer generation of players that seem to value winning above all else, so there is hope that change could be on the horizon. An element where this sort of minutes approach could be viewed as a negative, however, could be in the ever popular world of sports betting.
Prop Bet Uncertainty
As services like FanDuel, DraftKings, and others have gained in popularity through smartphone apps, the way that we as a collective society make wagers has changed. What used to be solely betting on the winner or loser of a game, has turned into a variety of prop bets. Instead of wondering if a certain team could win a game, bettors can now bet on how many points a player may score, or who would score the games first basket. It is a feature that the apps and the league have embraced as a fun way to enjoy the game.
According to reports, player props have come level with game outcome wagers in terms of frequency. This means that the average consumer of sports that also happens to place bets is watching a player more intently. Therefore, a varied minutes distribution could lead to some confusing and volatile betting lines that could cause bettors to lose money before they adjust to a new reality. But as it always does, the betting market will make corrections and bettors will adjust.
Ultimately, a viewpoint of total minutes as opposed to games played is good for multiple parties. It is good for star players, because they still maintain a sustainable minutes load while gaining goodwill from basketball fans as a whole. It is good for young, developing role players as it gives them more opportunity to have extended playing time in game situations that matter. It is good for fans because it means that they get to watch their favorite players more often, even in some situations where the minutes would be limited. It also makes betting more volatile, which could be argued as a win for the gamblers as well.
The NBA is a league that is constantly evolving, adapting to new standards and expectations. The load management era has been much maligned since it was such a swift departure from the 1990s and 2000s standard of “play through anything”. Perhaps minutes management is the next evolution of managing a player for peak playoff performance. All it took was new rules centered around awards to potentially change directions. I would say that it is a step in the right direction for both players and fans.