Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The NBA’s grueling schedule comes at a cost to players and fans
The NBA has never been richer with high-end talent than it is now, and the product can be a remarkable one when the best players are sharing the court together. Problem is, you never know who you are going to see during the regular season, and the gamble for fans trying to attend these games is costlier than ever.
Advancements in sports science have helped players enjoy longer careers. Load management and longer rehabilitation times are employed as safeguards against injuries and re-injury, respectively. Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate either entirely, so the regular season has become a high-wire act of managing existing injuries and trying to prevent future ones. What gets lost in between is the fan’s gambit, even if the ultimate goal is to ensure the roster is as healthy as possible entering the playoffs in its pursuit of a championship.
Take the Los Angeles Clippers, for example. They are one of six teams in the Western Conference with a winning record, currently in position for a guaranteed playoff spot, owners of the league’s sixth-best title odds, according to BetMGM. They are a contender in theory and a MASH unit in practice. Eighteen months removed from ACL surgery, Kawhi Leonard has missed more games than he has played this season, mostly managing that right knee. Paul George has missed 13 games to soreness in his right knee and hamstring.
The Clippers have played six nationally televised games this season. Leonard missed the first four, and George sat the middle two. When they managed to get them both on the floor for a rare two-game slate full of stars on this year’s Thursday debut of NBA on TNT, they may as well have been shelved. Leonard rested each game surrounding it, and George has not played since. Both played fewer than 20 minutes facing a blowout loss in what was supposed to be a measuring-stick game against Nikola Jokic‘s Denver Nuggets.
This is no fault of the Clippers. Injuries happen, and playing through them runs the risk of losing a $42 million player for the remainder of this season or possibly longer, crippling a team’s title chances this season and beyond. They have to protect their investments, but so, too, should the fans. Additional preventative and rehabilitative absences, on top of the actual injuries, too often make ticket purchases a losing gamble.
I bought two tickets to this week’s game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Boston Celtics as Christmas gifts for family members. The cheapest price for a pair of nosebleed seats on the secondary market was $226. That did not include parking, food, drinks or souvenirs. It adds up quick. And neither Zion Williamson nor Brandon Ingram — the major attractions on the opposition — played in a game that was all but over by the beginning of the fourth quarter. It was a watered-down product for a gassed-up price.
This is not an exception. It is becoming the rule. Families of four theoretically spent an average of $444 to attend an NBA game last season, according to Team Marketing Report’s Fan Cost Index, which balances the primary cost of four non-premium tickets, parking, four hot dogs, two draft beers and a couple sodas.
That is a 44% increase from 2012-13 and a 53% hike from when David Aldridge broached this subject for ESPN two decades ago. The average ticket price only moved from $47 to $56 from 2006-07 to 2015-16, but it reportedly exceeded $100 for the first time last season, despite a post-pandemic dip in attendance.
That is if you are lucky. Most available tickets are caught in the vortex of a secondary market that can send prices soaring by more than 400%. Tickets for all but seven teams cost more than twice the original price upon resale, according to SeatGeek, pushing that average cost for a family of four closer to $1,000 a night. That is more than twice what it cost the same family on the same secondary market inside a decade ago.
Unless you wait for the latest injury report before making your purchase and loading the kids into the car for a trip to the arena, you are also crossing your fingers that you actually see the product for which you paid.
By my count, of the 70 games aired on ABC, ESPN or TNT this season, at least one font-line player did not play in 58 of them. Once you excuse long-term injury absences for players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Cade Cunningham, Chet Holmgren, Khris Middleton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Robert Williams III and the Ball brothers, among others, it is still anyone’s guess which players show up.
Also 18 months removed from ACL surgery, Jamal Murray rested for a national TV appearance on the second game of the Nuggets’ season (and the first night of a back-to-back). Williamson has missed all three of the Pelicans’ nationally televised games this season with bruises to his backside and foot. The TNT doubleheader on Nov. 22 featured the Philadelphia 76ers sans Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, followed by a battle between LeBron James and Chris Paul in which neither actually participated.
Again, it is in a team’s best interest to nurse players returning from injuries or prone to them. The pandemic also provided reason to take more precaution with symptoms of illness. Devin Booker pressed to return for the Phoenix Suns on Christmas Day, and then re-aggravated a groin injury four minutes into the game. He has not played since, missing two additional high-visibility games, including this week’s loss to the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, which Paul and Deandre Ayton also missed with day-to-day injuries.
And these are the games the league needs its best players to satiate the TV networks. Your average NBA game is more of a crapshoot. On both trips to New Orleans this season, the Warriors rested Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. If you are a season-ticket holder in Oklahoma City, you have already missed opportunities to see Williamson, Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jimmy Butler and James Harden this season. It can be no coincidence that attendance at Thunder games has plummeted. Fans in Utah and Cleveland have seen similar skeleton crews in front of sellout crowds.
The NBA has taken steps to ease the scheduling load on players, limiting the number of back-to-backs and increasing the number of times teams play consecutive road games against the same opponent. A cursory review suggests those steps have not led to a decline in load management. In fact, it seems playing two straight road games in the same city has given teams an excuse to rest their stars for one of them. Of the 28 instances in which a road team has played two straight games in the same city, one or more star-level players missed a game on 21 occasions. It also increases the odds of a player missing his team’s only two road games in that city, like when COVID-19 cost Jokic both of Denver’s appearances in Dallas this season.
So, what can the NBA do if it cannot manipulate the existing schedule to limit injuries and appease the need for preventative rest or extended recovery? It could trim the 82-game schedule, increasing the time between games, the likelihood no one sits with lingering soreness and the stakes every night. The NBA is a remarkable product on the rare occasion during the regular season when two contenders meet with a full contingency of top-flight talent, or when players gut through minor bumps and bruises in the playoffs.
Only, the NBA will not cut games for the same reason it will not cut ticket prices. The money is too good, even it means asking the average family to gamble $1,000 on the off chance they see a finished product.
Determination: Fact. The NBA’s grueling schedule comes at a cost to players and fans.
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