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The NBA should delay the season so fans can see stars like LeBron James every night
Courtesy | Getty Images

Fans of the Brooklyn Nets rejoiced last year when their team united three of the biggest stars in the NBA: Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. Yet this tal­ented trio played together for only eight games during the regular season in 2020 – 21 — and the Nets sank from runaway title favorites to an injury-riddled second-round exit.

While injuries can be decisive in any sport, they plagued the entire NBA last year — and they’ll remain a big problem until the league lengthens the off­season it has shortened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the new season set to start next week, bas­ketball fans should expect another spike in injuries and players who sit out games. This will frus­trate fans and hurt tele­vision ratings for a league looking to rebound from a drop in viewership.

The culprit will be one of the shortest off­seasons in the history of the NBA: Just 91 days between the game on July 20, when the Mil­waukee Bucks won their cham­pi­onship, and the opening-night tip-off on Oct. 19 between the Bucks and Nets. 

This follows the shortest off­season in the history of any of the four major American sports leagues, when NBA players rested for just 71 days between the 2019 – 20 and 2020 – 21 seasons — and created the con­di­tions for one of the most injury-prone seasons in the NBA’s history. 

“NBA players col­lec­tively missed more time during the 2020 – 21 season than in any single year dating back to 2009-10,” ESPN’s Kevin Pelton said.

The league’s biggest stars were affected at an even higher rate. According to Elias Sports Bureau, last season’s All-Stars missed 370 out of 1,944 pos­sible games — that’s 19%, the highest such rate in any single season in NBA history.

Moreover, 12 All-Star players missed at least one game of the playoffs, twice as many as the next-highest number in NBA history.

Before the pan­demic, an NBA off­season usually lasted around 140 days — enough time for bat­tered players to heal after a gru­eling season. The problem of the shortened off­season is now com­pounded by the length of the regular season, which goes back up to the pre-pan­demic normal of 82 games. Last season, teams played a shortened 72-game schedule and the injuries still piled up. 

One solution, from the stand­point of a team seeking to win a cham­pi­onship, is to practice “load man­agement,” which involves resting players to protect their health and make them ready for post­season excel­lence. Yet this causes its own kind of injury: It hurts the fans. 

Imagine a family of Los Angeles Lakers fans who can afford to attend only one game per season. They buy their tickets, pay for parking, and show up at Staples Center, only to dis­cover that LeBron James is taking the night off. Sorry, kids: He needs to “manage his load.” Better luck next year! 

This has become a common practice for all-NBA-level players such as James and Kawhi Leonard, who have already both proved their worth to their teams and made their money. They can afford to miss a few games every season to reduce their risk of injury. Yet they’re the reason fans attend games in person and watch them on tele­vision: More than any other sport, the NBA is a star-driven league. When its best players aren’t dunking on their rivals and knocking down con­tested threes, it suffers more than when an NFL line­backer needs to nurse a sprained ankle or an MLB pitcher must skip a start due to a sore arm.

My pre­diction: The aggra­va­tions of injuries and load man­agement will hit an all-time high in the new season, threat­ening the pop­u­larity of the NBA. During the last regular season, the NBA aired 168 nationally tele­vised games on ABC, ESPN, and TNT. On average, these games suf­fered an astounding 25% dip in view­ership from the 2018 – 19 season. This is under­standable, given a record number of star players benched with injuries or resting in fear of one. NBA games were less fun to watch.

The ultimate solution is for the NBA to extend its off-season, for the sake of what happens when mil­lions of fans want to watch the best players in the world.