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LeBron James didn’t play basketball on Wednesday night, even though he was fully capable of playing it better than anyone else in the world on that particular evening.
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The malady in this case was “rest,” as provided by James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in explanation and as accepted by Adam Silver’s NBA by rote. As a result, James sat out a game in Indianapolis against the Pacers – the third such game (out of five) in Indy that he’s sat out due to rest since re-joining the Cavs back in the summer of 2014.
The Pacers won, not quite handily but with aplomb, by a 103-93 score. Helpers and former All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving contributed a combined 51 points for the Cavs, but it wasn’t enough to top a sensible Pacers attack, and the home team emerged the victor. Still, the home team’s move back to .500 was probably not enough for those that made a point to circle this game on the calendar, those that helped vault the Pacers (typical attendance thus far: 16,400) up over 17,000 in passing the turnstiles.
Watching the game, you couldn’t have helped wonder how many of those 17K-strong had made a point to pounce on this ticket all the way back in August, mindful of the enhanced price due to the champs’ and (mostly) James’ presence. A price that no doubt vaulted ahead of the toll it would take to have seen Elfrid Payton’s hair on Monday night in a Pacer win over Orlando, or Devin Booker’s racing-stripe sideburns (and game) in a contest against Phoenix on Friday evening.
Bob Kravitz, the much-respected dean of Indianapolis sports columnists, certainly saw what was up:
The wussification of America is complete now. It was bad enough during the baseball postseason when managers started yanking productive starting pitchers after five innings, or when relievers hit the 30-pitch mark and broadcasters breathlessly wondered how – oh, HOW! – that reliever might come back the next evening and, you know, do the job he’s paid millions to do.
Now, though, we have LeBron James sitting out the 11th game of the regular season. The 11th. Not the 56th. Not the 71st. The 11th.
Somewhere, Cal Ripken, Jr. is smirking.
(Pardon my dive into the realm of the uncouth: Cal Ripken Jr., in the middle of his impressive consecutive games streak, sucked more than his fair share of times in years that should have acted as peak seasons. He needed far more breaks than he took.)
I like Bob a lot, and you should as well. He’s a great guy and a fantastic writer. One would hope he would, in the wake of the Great Hot Take Realization of 2010, be performing with tongue placed firmly in cheek. Alas, he is not. Mostly. Although he did score this explanation of sorts from Pacers coach Nate McMillan:
I wondered if he could feel what young kids were feeling, how their parents felt after shelling out big bucks to take their sons and daughters to see the game’s biggest star – only to have him, um, rest.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “But I think teams do what they think is best for them … One thing we talk about a lot is recovery with players, how you train and condition them, time in practice, amount of time to recover. We didn’t have sleep doctors when I played. We flew commercial. It’s a whole different game now.”
“When I played, training camp was the full month of October, and we could do two-a-days the whole month of October. A lot of things have changed in the NBA but we never talked about rest days or taking days off. Really, the only time you heard that conversation was late in the season when you had a playoff spot wrapped up, you might rest some guys, but not this early in the season.”
Nate McMillan, you’ll recall, is the player who at the young age of 31 could not participate in the 1996 NBA Finals – his lone championship round appearance – due to crippling back woes stemming from overuse. Even though McMillan, a backup to Gary Payton, had not been a starter and heavy-minutes performer for six years at that point.
The point with LeBron James – sitting his 11th game of the season just 22 days after the 2016-17 season started – is that the timing doesn’t matter. It’s the time that gets in the way. Saving minutes in April helps as much as knocking them from the ledger in November, so the cries about “11th game!!” fall flat.
If April breaks did somehow count more than autumn respites, then the NBA would be borderline unwatchable following St. Patrick’s Day. It’s certainly better to dot the schedule with nights off, instead of forcing them all at once next spring on a paying public that is driving through snow-less streets for the first time in four months.
It truly is a drag that both Pacer and general NBA fans, giddy to see LeBron early in the campaign and mindful that his scheduled pre-All-Star break Feb. 8 performance in Indy might be more prone to inspire a sit-down, missed out on James on Wednesday night. For an athlete expected to play deep into June for his seventh season in a row, though, this is what has to happen. A locally-televised game and few thousand selective fans have to be sacrificed in the name of being at one’s best in the middle of June, on ABC.
Mainly because LeBron James was in northern Ohio just the night before, helping his Cavaliers defend home court (in front of paying home fans) in a successful Eastern Conference finals rematch pairing against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. James and the Cavaliers were in the midst of one of 17 back-to-backs that they’ll be asked to play in 2016-17.
For what we hope will be the last season of back-to-back basketball. Roll over Oscar Robertson, tell Art Heyman the news.
The league’s new collective bargaining agreement, hopefully signed sometime this winter, needs to include scheduling changes that we’ve been begging for on various websites for a decade and a half. The NBA season – which already crosses over into the MLB playoffs, a run that is already ignored for months at a time as sporting fandom focuses on football – has to start earlier in the calendar year.
The league has to start in mid-October, as it did during Oscar Robertson’s and Heyman’s heyday (remind your local sports talk radio host about this), as a way to eliminate the need for back-to-back games.
The 82-game schedule isn’t going anywhere, as no NBA team is going to burn the chance to be able to schedule LeBron James (whether he plays or not) once or twice a season in their home arena. What does need to stretch out is the length of time, in a season that still manages to produce headlines until the sleepy season in August and September. We’re not asking that the league elbow its way into July, as Gregg Popovich has already groused about, but merely add to its October run.
An official run, with fewer of these pointless exhibition games that even NBA dorks like yours truly doesn’t watch.
The NBA has worked its tail off to ensure that we have fewer back-to-back and four-games-in-five-night expectations than ever: Cleveland doesn’t even have a 4-in-5 run scheduled this season.
As pitched currently, however, the forecast remains unfair to all involved. It isn’t fair to James, the coddled “multi-zillionaire” (as Bob Kravitz calls him) that has to indirectly apologize to those who “work a 40-hour work week, or work two jobs, or even three, and struggle to feed their families.” Those that, presumably in this hypothetical instance, ended up buying a ticket to see 36-year-old Richard Jefferson start at small forward on Wednesday.
It isn’t fair to those fans, it isn’t fair to the new-look Pacers – champing at the bit to see how their re-acclimated game fits alongside the champs. It isn’t fair to us that Bob Kravitz’s great Paul George vs. LeBron James column turned out like this, and it certainly isn’t fair to the Great Explainers (of which I am one, in this realm) to have to remind the in-and-out observers in June that LeBron’s season included all-out intensity and drive, on record, some 100 games and six months earlier.
We should have gotten a nicer Wednesday night. The Toronto Raptors could have played better, against Golden State, in a nationally televised second half of a back-to-back. LeBron could have lined up against Paul George as expected. The fans could have taken in what reasonable expectation had promised them back in August. You wouldn’t have to read any of this, from Kelly or Kravitz.
Hopefully, 2016-17 will stand as the last time we’ll have to do this.
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