At this point, you’ve likely digested the last couple weeks of NBA players resting and have settled on an opinion about it. Lots of takes have been flying around.
But: Two things are undeniable: 1) Resting superstars on half of back-to-back’s before the playoffs is in the players’ and their teams’ long-term best interests, and 2) Golden State sitting their stars against the Spurs (and vice versa) in a matchup between the conference’s two top seeds instead of the night before in Minnesota, and Cleveland sitting theirs against the star-laden Clippers instead of the night after against the poopy Lakers were overt acts of disobedience against the league office.
The players, coaches, and general managers want less back-to-back games on the road. They’re correct in this desire, and some of this issue should sort itself out next year when the season spans an extra week, but they’ve been upset about the schedule for years and are driving their point home now to make damn sure the Commissioner’s office hears them loud and clear. (Adam Silver issued a memo to owners on Monday that they at the very least need to provide adequate notice for rest — unlike the Cavs, who announced their Big 3 out just hours before tip on Saturday — and promised major consequences if this edict is violated.)
Sitting out for a night in Memphis sucks for everybody who bought a ticket, but it’s a papercut compared to resting on national broadcast television on Saturday night, two weeks in a row, on a package that the NBA and ESPN are clearly seeking to establish as a marquee. And then the Cavaliers turned around and did it again.
When kicking around motives for this in my mind, I first thought that it might be partially retribution from the star teams against ESPN’s debate culture. But, it wouldn’t make sense for ESPN to bear the brunt of that relative to TNT, where Charles Barkley has incurred retaliation from LeBron and said the Warriors are soft for years. It hasn’t been a month since the Shaq/JaVale McGee dustup.
So, I don’t think it’s an “ESPN” thing. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, two weeks in a row. Nevertheless, ESPN’s analysts have been lashing out since last Saturday. If you’ve watched their television you’ve seen it, and Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News summarized a lot of it, with the highlights being Jeff Van Gundy saying that in other industries this would be a “prosecutable offense,” and Ryen Russillo’s belief that “it feels like the NBA players are a bad partner with the television side of this.”
ESPN gave Sporting News as pointed a statement about one of their league partners as you’ll ever see (bold mine): “As always, our aim is to serve NBA fans with the best matchups involving the league’s top stars, and we share the fans’ disappointment. We understand this is a complex issue and we’re working closely with the NBA to best address it going forward from a media partnership standpoint.”
It’s an interesting and ultimately unanswerable philosophical question whether ESPN would be ripping the NFL like this. While ESPN has staunchly denied this was the case and emphasizes outwardly that they are happy with their NFL partnership, in July of 2015 THR had sources that believed the NFL retaliated against anti-Goodell commentary by giving them a crappy slate of Monday Night Football games:
[W]hile NFL schedulers have historically worked to spread marquee matchups among its TV partners, the upcoming MNF schedule is viewed as one pointedly lacking in high-interest games, with multiple sources inside ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters believing the “terrible” schedule is “pay back for Simmons and Olbermann,” as one source put it.
But, the NBA doesn’t have that same leverage. For one, it’s not nearly as popular. Additionally, they have just one other league partner, and that’s Turner, whose face of the coverage, Charles Barkley, has specifically called for a fan boycott this week.
ESPN is acutely aware of the benefits of players getting rest during back-to-back road games. They published the definitive story on it:
Haberstroh also wrote a piece last week, in light of the Warriors’ decision, in which he noted that the star teams’ travel rigors are correlated with the amount that they’re on national television.
Given the gobs of money ESPN forked over for this additional television package (and also to keep FS1 away from it), it’s understandable that they’re dismayed about bearing the brunt of it for two weeks in a row. That being said, it would suck way more for them if LeBron or Steph Curry played in those games and got injured and had to miss the playoffs, where the real ratings are.
ESPN surely wants superstars to get rest on road back-to-back’s, just not when they’re broadcasting them.