BY DAVID THORPE
Come with me on a fantastic voyage into a parallel NBA universe….
It's a Tuesday night in early November, and the Memphis Grizzlies are hosting the LA Lakers. It’s early in the season, but there’s already an electricity in the air: This game means something. The Lakers have gotten off to a good start, thanks to their stars playing well (and often); the Grizzlies are also proving their 2022 season was no fluke.
However, Grizzlies star Ja Morant is missing as the teams take the floor at FedEx Forum. He has been given the night off to spend some time with his mother on her birthday. His schedule—summer training, camp, preseason, and now the regular season—has made it difficult for him to see her these past few months. Ja has prepared his coaching staff, his teammates, and his front office for his absence; he’s vowed to play the next game (which he had originally elected to miss), so the Grizzlies have approved his request.
In Cleveland just a month later, an announcement is made that Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff will be absent from the sidelines as his team plays the Sixers. Instead of manning the helm of this potential four-seed-versus-five-seed playoff matchup, he’s attending his daughter’s volleyball match. It’s a big match for her, and he wants to support her tonight since his busy schedule means that he’s been able to see her play only a handful of times. The Cavs have agreed to schedule one night off for Bickerstaff in each month of the regular season—seven games in total—for this exact reason. Coaching duties will fall to a different coach in each of those seven contests (almost like a pitching rotation); this game will be handled by Greg Buckner, the Cavs’ associate head coach.
Then, in early January, the Los Angeles Clippers are on the road in Milwaukee, playing the Bucks in a potential NBA Finals battle. Kawhi Leonard is already on the injury report for load management, but Paul George is on there, too—for “personal reasons.” What does that mean? George wants to attend a school science fair, where his son will be presenting his project. The Bucks are going to be shorthanded, too (though less on the floor): Charles Lee, their associate head coach, is taking his wife out for dinner to celebrate their 15th anniversary.
Of course, all of this is make-believe. Any similarities here are just dumb luck: I know very little about players’ off-court lives. Maybe that’s the real problem here—one that hopefully will get solved in this fantasy (more on that later).
For the most part, all players, coaches, and executives are expected to attend every game. Acceptable reasons to miss games are essentially limited to injury, childbirth, bereavement, load management (much to the chagrin of the casual fan), or the ever-so-vague “personal reasons.” However, as the universe outside of sports embraces the idea that sometimes less is more when it comes to work, that concept struggles to gain traction in the sports world (ranging from youth to professional leagues).
The facts are clear: NBA players are gassed after 82 games, but it’s not just the 82 so much as the hundreds—if not thousands—of games they play before reaching the NBA. Sure, salaries are higher than ever, but that workload history means today’s players are at greater risk of injury than ever, too. They’re also becoming less connected to society in general.
These are trends that I’d like to see change. There is no better time than now.
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