LOS ANGELES – A second consecutive star-deprived blowout on the NBA’s marquee national television package left fans wailing, ABC’s commentators fuming, and Doc Rivers calling on the league office for help.
Chants of “We want LeBron” rained down throughout the Clippers’ 108-78 win over the Cavaliers at Staples Center on Saturday, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love all watched from the sidelines. Officially, James was given the night off for rest, Irving sat due to knee tightness, and Love was scheduled to sit as he works back from knee surgery. Cleveland coach Ty Lue said his “Big 3” is expected to play against the Lakers in LA on Sunday.
Lue’s decision to align his stars’ rest was understandable and standard practice in a league whose coaches have increasingly embraced rest for strategic purposes. Still, Cleveland’s no-show made waves due to its timing: Last Saturday, the Spurs blew out the Warriors 107-85 with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all resting.
As Cleveland sputtered to just 31 first-half points without James’ playmaking, Irving’s on-ball wizardry and Love’s shooting, ABC analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson opened up on the no-shows. Pointing to fans that paid premium prices to see the high-profile match-up between star-studded rosters, Van Gundy termed strategic resting a “bait-and-switch maneuver” and a “prosecutable offense.”
“This is an absolute joke,” Jackson added. “Who is protecting the fans? Who is protecting the game of basketball? Something’s got to be done.”
As part of the NBA’s new nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal with Disney and Turner, ABC launched Saturday Primetime last year in hopes of creating a new weekly showcase game to augment TNT Thursday Night and ESPN’s Wednesday and Friday night slates.
While Saturday Primetime has delivered some great games, including Golden State’s classic overtime win at the buzzer in Oklahoma City last year, recent matchups have been diluted by injuries and rest. Instead of Kawhi Leonard versus Kevin Durant last week, fans were treated to Patrick McCaw versus Kyle Anderson. And instead of James going head to head with Chris Paul in the clutch, Saturday saw geezers James Jones and Paul Pierce getting extended fourth-quarter burn.
Lue admitted to reporters during his post-game press conference that he probably would have preferred watching the NCAA tournament rather than the star-less Cavaliers. Nevertheless, he said that the top-seeded Cavaliers they can “afford” schedule losses before the playoffs and that he needed to make sure his players get “the proper rest” during a season that has seen Love and J.R. Smith undergo surgery.
By now, most observers seem to agree that this issue goes beyond singling out Lue for blame. Indeed, when asked if he could hear the Cavaliers fans chanting for James. The second-year coach chuckled and quipped, “I want him too,” sounding like a man who knew the price of preparing his franchise for another deep June run was the occasional 30-point loss in March.
Rivers, a former player turned ABC broadcaster turned coach/executive, argued that the responsibility for fixing no-shows now falls to the NBA’s schedule-makers. In his view, the league should adjust its procedures to ensure that teams can play at full strength during the Saturday night games.
“I really believe we have to protect the national games by scheduling,” he said. “I think we can. It’s going to be hard but I think we can do this.”
Rivers proposed that the NBA provide buffer days around the Saturday night match-ups, ensuring that neither team plays the game as part of a back-to-back. In theory, that would have fixed Saturday’s game: Lue likely would have played his stars, or at least James, if the Cavaliers didn’t need to turn around and play the Lakers on Sunday.
“We need to treat these ABC games like afternoon games where you don’t play the night before,” Rivers said. “And then you don’t play the next night after. It sounds so easy, but it’s not. It’s hard scheduling around that way. It makes the rest of the schedule even harder. I think maybe we have to suck that up and do it and play more back-to-backs [at other times] if that’s what it takes. We have to protect the product.”
Complicating the issue is the NBA’s heavy reliance on a small number of high-profile and big-market teams to fill out the Saturday Primetime schedule. This season, the NBA is airing nine Saturday games on ABC starting in late January and running through April. The Clippers and Cavaliers appear four times each, the Warriors and Spurs three times each, and 23 teams don’t make a single appearance. Indeed, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, Paul George, John Wall, Kyle Lowry and a host of other All-Stars will combine to make zero Saturday Primetime appearances because their teams weren’t schedule to play, not because they were given the night off. It was the exact same story last year, when only seven different teams appeared on the eight Saturday Primetime games.
If that top-heavy approach holds going forward, the buffer days that Rivers has proposed would add up very quickly. There’s another obvious slippery slope counterargument: Why should ABC’s Saturday night games be treated differently than a TNT Thursday game? Should teams be given buffer days for TNT games too? If so, what about Wednesday night on ESPN? Tuesday night on NBA TV? Where’s the line? And coaches of small-market teams are likely rolling their eyes at all of this, wondering why any regular-season game should be treated differently than any other if they all count for one win or one loss in the standings.
So far, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has yet to follow the lead of his predecessor, David Stern, who fined the Spurs $250,000 in 2012 for resting Tim Duncan and other stars for a nationally-televised game against the Heat. On the contrary, Silver has long advocated for player health and wellness, leaving his hands tied to a degree on this issue.
However, some help may come next season, as opening night is schedule to move up in October to ease scheduling conflicts and reduce back-to-back scenarios. Like the fans, coaches and broadcasters, players seem to want the issue addressed too. Griffin, who was given the night off for rest along with DeAndre Jordan on Thursday, told reporters Saturday that he looks forward to high-profile matchups against top teams. “It’s a different game without LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin playing,” he added. “We’re not going to pretend like it’s not.”
The NFL has taken some flak in recent years for overextending its television schedule by adding extra nights of coverage and forcing teams to play on short weeks. While comparing the two leagues is apples to oranges when it comes to player health and safety, Rivers is correct that the NBA would be smart to rethink its scheduling philosophy towards showcase games this summer.
While injuries are unavoidable and the overall system isn’t broken, tweaking rest days or incorporating a greater number of teams on Saturday Primetime could help alleviate these occasional unnecessary eyesores. If minor accommodations wind up saving the league from a repeat of the past two Saturday nights and succeed in delivering James, Curry and the league’s other A-listers to as many television households as many times as possible, it will be worth it.