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The NBA’s New Rest Policy Is Built on a House of Cards

Load management has become a bummer for all parties in the NBA, but the league’s new rules ignore the sport’s biggest problem

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Look, I get it. We all love a good alliteration. There is great power in knowing you’ve pulled off a stylistic device successfully—you can’t control the narrative without a command of language. I must admit, though: On Wednesday, when the NBA’s board of governors approved new rules to inhibit the exploitation of load management for the upcoming 2023-24 season—what the league is dubbing the Player Participation Policy (PPP)—I couldn’t help but think about how unfortunate it is to mint a policy that shares a titular acronym with the Paycheck Protection Program, the U.S. business loan system launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been almost comically rife with fraud. But, again, I get it. It’s catchy, and sure to be a hit at the next broadcasting rights deal negotiation.

The NBA’s PPP hopes to crack down on what has, admittedly, been a bummer for all parties involved: star players sitting out too many nationally televised games. To do that, the league first had to define what a “star” is: a player who has been an All-Star or on an All-NBA team in any of the previous three seasons. Under the new rules, stars who are fit to play will be required to suit up for nationally broadcast games and for the new In-Season Tournament. Teams will not be able to rest multiple stars in the same game and won’t be allowed to rest their stars solely on road games either (where many fan bases will get only one opportunity to watch a visiting star play live). Players who are healthy and resting will be required to sit with the team and be visible to fans. Teams are also prohibited from shutting a star down for the season for reasons that would affect “the integrity of the game”—such as last season, when the Trail Blazers sat Damian Lillard for the final 10 games of the season to aid in the tank that led to Scoot Henderson … or potentially this season, on the chance that Lillard (or the team) decides he should stay away from the Blazers for the length of his trade request.

Violating any of these new rules will incur a $100,000 fine for the first offense, $250,000 for the second, $1.25 million for the third, and an additional $1 million more than the previous fine amount for every violation thereafter. The first few offenses would be bullets worth biting for most teams, particularly those already paying the luxury tax, but it’s as yet unclear how long-term “shutdown” absences would be penalized—would each game missed represent a separate violation, or only the games that fit within the PPP’s other guidelines? It’s easy to envision full compliance if it’s the former. For example, if one were to transpose the Blazers’ 1-9 tank job to close last season to 2023-24—assuming there were no other violations earlier in the season—those 10 games would cost the team as much as $38,350,000, or roughly $2 million more than what the Blazers will owe Jerami Grant in the final year of his brand-new five-year contract.

It’s a lot—both the theoretical money and these new rules that would necessitate it. But it’s meant to be a lot. Billions of dollars are on the line, from the NBA’s perspective. Load management—not the stunning rise of parity in the league, not the diversity and enormity of talent, not the game—has become the single most consequential variable in the NBA’s current timeline. Commissioner Adam Silver has the burden and responsibility of ensuring to all relevant media executives that marquee players will indeed play in marquee games. When it’s put like that, it’s hard to imagine how these new rules could be controversial. As NBA fans, we all want to watch the best players in the world as often as we can. We all collectively groan at last-minute star DNPs that deprive us of rare, once-a-year matchups, especially for fans who have already paid a lot of money to see them play live.

But critiques of load management often devolve into broader cognitive biases about the way things used to be. Players were tougher back then. What else could explain it? Why is it that players these days need so much rest when their forebears didn’t? Why do they need more rest when there have been countless technological advancements in surgery, medicine, nutrition, hydration, and footwear in the past half century? There is one critique that at least tries to bridge past and present: The breakneck pace of play of today’s game is not a good enough excuse, given that games in the 1960s and ’70s were played even faster. But, as is the case with the other sentiments, it’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison. Elgin Baylor may have been Euro-stepping against hapless plumbers a half century before the technique became an industry standard, but he—in so many ways—was the exception that proves the rule. Basketball is literally a different game today.

The NBA’s 3-point era, beginning in 1979, was a clear line of demarcation in the grander arc of basketball, but just as important was a trend that ran parallel: the widening legality of dribbling techniques from the 1980s onward. More open interpretations of dribbling allowed the game to move beyond the flat-palmed standard that had defined it for its first century and into more fluid, expressive patterns of motion. The expansion of legal dribbling motions created more opportunities for explosive movement, both laterally and vertically. That sense of freedom on the court invited a greater array of athletes who found new ways of expressing their gifts within the confines of the game. There is more stress placed on the body of an NBA athlete today than ever before because the bar for functional athleticism in the NBA is higher than it’s ever been before. Mere months ago, there was a raging sentiment to ban the charge foul after a handful of superstars got injured in the postseason with defenders sliding under them while they were in midair, leading to cringeworthy landings. The league’s framework is still trying to catch up to what the game has become, and therein lies the rub.

Like most issues that have systemic roots, much of the frustration stemming from load management winds up falling on the individual, despite rest being largely determined on the team level. Kawhi Leonard, the Picasso of player participation—in a surrealist sense, not in prolificacy, obviously—stands as the ultimate avatar. It’s not really a new position for Kawhi; he was the same thorn in the owners’ side four years ago in 2019, when his stunning power play as a free agent forced owners to consider reworking the rules of free agency in the new collective bargaining agreement—which they’ve since done.

With history seemingly repeating itself, it’s important to recognize the bigger picture, which the NBA seems dead set on obscuring. The NBA is spackling over an issue that its own rules have created. At the core of which: There are too many regular-season games for how the sport is presently played. Since the end of the 2022-23 regular season, the NBA has legislated an attempt at eradicating unnecessary rest, set a 65-game threshold for All-NBA awards, allowed for teams to play games on the day in which they have flown across two time zones, and installed the In-Season Tournament—all of which is to say that the league has built a house of cards atop a gaping existential chasm that it seems unwilling to acknowledge.

Two seasons ago, in the Heat’s final regular-season game, an inconsequential Sunday matinee against the Magic, Bam Adebayo played less than eight minutes of the first quarter before sitting out for the rest of the game. He was rested in the previous game; would those handful of minutes be enough to avoid a violation? How far will teams go to test the boundaries of the PPP, and will the outside pressure of betting markets force the NBA to be stringent in its rulings? How the league chooses to enforce these rules will be telling, and the further addenda to the rule may prove to be a slippery slope, serving as even more of a headache than the original sin. The incentives and punishments the league has concocted for the coming season wind up blending together when they’re all in service of increasing productivity without addressing any underlying tensions. Want Kawhi to play more regular-season games? Maybe give him a few more days of rest between contests. It’s not basketball that he’s trying to avoid, it’s injury.

“No doubt we are a business,” Silver said at one point during his Wednesday press conference after the board of governors meeting.

That much has never been clearer. All of the league’s efforts over the past year have been obvious attempts to maximize both yield and demand at the same time in preparation for the media rights windfall that will surely be coming in 2025. We can’t yet know how the new rules will affect the state of player participation in the upcoming season, or if the new In-Season Tournament will ramp up demand in the way the league hopes it will. I have an idea on the latter bit, though. I’m no business major, but I’m pretty sure there’s an essential bit of economics that says scarcity drives demand. And there’s one fairly obvious way of creating scarcity in the NBA’s schedule. I don’t know, maybe it’s worth considering.