There are many issues plaguing the NBA, such as an over-saturation of the three-point shot, star players switching teams like it’s an AAU league, or even fans believing the buddy-buddy culture has watered down the product. Cases can be made for each. However, no one seems to be addressing the real elephant in the room regarding the modern-day NBA:
Why can’t any of these guys manage to stay healthy?
It’s a tough question that can draw some harsh opinions, especially from fans who grew up on those Lakers/Celtics rivalries in the 80s. And rightfully so. Those guys were a different breed of athlete that embraced the culture of not only playing hurt or tired, but they welcomed the brutality of the game. It was mean, it was rugged, and shockingly — players (for the most part) played all 82 regular season games.
Fast forward almost 40 years and we can barely get some of the game’s most physically gifted athletes, like Lakers star Anthony Davis, to show up for half a season. Better food, training staff, chartered planes, and we’re going full Benjamin Button? Evolution is helping everyone jump higher and run faster yet hardly any player is staying on the floor. Let’s dive into what could possibly be at work (because we’ve got quite the take on why today’s basketball players don’t play much … basketball)
Focused on championships
If we think back to the way Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were covered in the media, they were mostly judged on their ability to win, yes, but their competence wasn’t measured simply by counting rings. Pushing our timeline further into the early 90s, Michael Jordan was tasked with helping build the 1992 Dream Team following his title run in ’91 — one scrimmage into practice Magic Johnson famously said “there’s a new sheriff in town,” meaning the best player in the world was in Chicago, despite having won just one championship.
Now here’s where it gets spicy. LeBron James was drafted in the summer of 2003, where he was immediately compared to Jordan. Vertical jump, his vision on the break, and of course the fact that he chose to wear Jordan’s No. 23.
And when James stood up well, at least measurably, the conversation shifted to “well, how many championships can he win?” At first, it had hardly any impact on LeBron’s early break onto the scene, but after losing to Boston in 2009, fans began questioning LeBron’s greatness over his inability to hoist Larry O’Brien trophies. The way we used to discuss how circumstances could help or hurt one’s chance of winning, like partnering with Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman, we were suddenly no longer interested in context. It’s happened before (Charles Barkley) — just never to a player of this magnitude.
Long story short, LeBron takes his talents to South Beach, winning back-to-back championships and ridding himself of that stench of being a “loser.” But something unfortunate happened in the process. NBA players around the league now felt that if they managed to win a championship, regardless of the process, they would be perceived in a more positive way. Regular-season stats no longer mattered, a team’s win-loss record for playoff seeding was now viewed as irrelevant, and good (not great) players began to think they were one trade demand away from basketball immortality.
But we need to put emphasis on the fact that players no longer cared about the regular season and were now hyper-focused on the end result. Really, shortcutting the process that made the league fun to watch in the first place. Caring about regular-season basketball is what gave us storylines like Kobe Bryant‘s 81-point night in a technically meaningless game against the Raptors.
Around this time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich birthed the “load-management era,” and yet players haven’t seen results.
Today’s players are choosing to sit down today to have a better opportunity to stand up tomorrow. And our eyes tell us it’s not working. Perhaps players from the past, despite their inferior facilities, built their bodies up by playing to better prepare for the future. It’s at least something to think about.
Money has become a problem
People like to say money changes people and we strongly disagree. Money tends to change the way a person believes they have to deal with others. A person who’s coming into money knows they no longer have to put on a show — they can be who they always wanted to be.
Money is the great revealer of character, and that circles back to the culture in the NBA today. Role players are getting paid like star players and it’s changing the dynamics of the sport. No one ever watched Rodman or Bill Laimbeer and thought “how much is he going to ask for when he hits free agency?” The NBA “business” aspect was only a topic of conversation for players like Pippen or the fact Jordan was underpaid throughout his career. So with money flowing the way it is in the present, every player on the floor, regardless of their role, is viewing the game from a business perspective first.
And this viewpoint has trickled into front offices because they now want to protect these assets that have become major investments. It was easier to tell a Dennis Rodman to play banged up when he’s making $27.5 million over his entire career than a Draymond Green who’s losing $769,970 during a five-game suspension. We’re thrilled for athletes making that type of money, but it’s absolutely become a factor in how these guys are coached and pushed through a regular season.
Draymond Green will lose $769,970 with the five game suspension. https://t.co/NQmbRysOJr
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 16, 2023
So what’s the solution?
It’ll start with a front office that researches the trend that bubble-wrapping players doesn’t protect them for any real change long-term. No one wants to minimize an injury, like Bradley Beal‘s strained back that has the Suns guard out another three weeks until further evaluation. But at what point do we recognize you can’t tip-toe through 40 games and then expect to march through 82 games the following year? It just doesn’t add up.
The NBA needs to get back to a product that cares about playoff runs when we get there, rather than attempting to time their health. It’ll hopefully get players back on the floor every night the way they used to, and grow the game we all love.