Last season, I got tickets to a Kings-Mavs game. I had never seen Dirk play before and I was dying to see him kick out his leg and drain a couple of impossible fadeaway jumpers before he set off into the sunset, to a well-deserved retirement. I wanted to see bad, bad Boogie get T’ed up and still drop 30 and 10, in a ballet of uncontrolled fury and exasperation at the refs. I was even holding out hope that Deron Williams might turn back the clock and rep it like he was playing in the 2005 Elite Eight against Arizona. In some small way, I convinced myself that watching Rudy Gay play would be fun; after all, he’s maybe the most talented and mercurial non-All-Star in recent memory. Another fun fact: the only person to treat the game of basketball as more beneath contempt than Rudy Gay was retired Wizards great Kwame Brown.
But, minutes before tip-off I found out that Dirk was getting a scheduled night-off. Boogie and Rudy were also resting (read: not trying) because the Kings were already out of contention. It was a game with zero playoff implications. Even Deron took the night off (he was “injured,” I think?), which hopefully gave him time to reminisce about the good ole’ days when people could actually make a rationale case that he was the best PG in the league and better than Chris Paul (LOL).
Did I feel disappointed, duped, and distraught? Yes, yes, and yes. Were my tickets rendered valueless? Definitely. At one point in the game, the most compelling match-up on the floor was Seth Curry vs. Devin Harris. It was a rough, rough game to watch.
Fast forward to March 2017 and teams’ decisions to rest star players at random has become a major source of frustration for the NBA. Without question, the modern NBA is a superstars league. Fans pay to see superstars, not teams. It’s not the Rockets vs. the Thunder that gets people hyped, it’s Harden vs. Westbrook. With prices rising, people shell out hundreds of dollars for Cavs tickets, hoping to see LeBron in person, only to find out that he’s preparing for the playoffs by not playing. Similar situations have played out across any number of teams: coaches deciding not to play key players for no reason other than hopefully shielding them from potential injury.
Now the league is getting involved. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently sent a memo to owners, pleading with them to not rest star players–a tactic he calls “a significant issue for the league.” But what can he really do? Can the league actually force coaches to play certain players? Can the league punish teams that rest key starters before the playoffs–or more egregiously, in the hope of landing a higher pick in the lottery?
There’s a very fine line between ensuring that fans are happy and are shown the product they expect when they purchase tickets and respecting teams that are planning ahead with an eye towards a championship or higher draft pick. It seems that it’s a zero-sum game, either fans get screwed or players/teams get screwed.
Perhaps the most compelling remedy to the situation that’s been floated is “ticket insurance.” Basically, people can pay, say an extra $10 when they buy their tickets. That $10 acts as an insurance policy so that, if it turns out a star player doesn’t play (whether through rest, injury, or any other reason), the fan is entitled to a full refund of their ticket. But still, questions abound? Will teams effectively be punished when players are out with legitimate injuries? Would such a system foolishly encourage star players to play through pain, at the risk of their careers and legacies (see: Derrick Rose willing the Bulls to an Eastern Conference Finals despite injury and tear, only to spend the next 4 years paying the consequences)?
What do you think is the best solution to this problem? Will other leagues soon have to address the same issue? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.