Lebron, Kyrie, and Love are all not playing tonight, and if you paid money specifically to watch those players, I feel bad for you. Watching LeBron in person is a singular experience. He does 1-2 things a night that no other basketball player can do, and he does so with such grace that the impossible seems mundane.
Five years ago, I was in Dallas for a few weeks and LeBron and the Heat were coming to town. I begged my friend to splurge some money with me because we had to to get close to the action. We settled on sitting about halfway up the lower bowl, in the corner between the tunnel and bench (Hrdlicka note: these are some of the sneakily best seats in any arena. Easy access to concessions, and far enough up that you can see action on the other side of the court).
The Heat proceeded to blow the Mavs out the water, and the game itself was pretty boring, except for one important fact, and that important fact was LeBron James. Sometime in the first half Wade snagged a rebound, and in a moment that appeared spontaneous but in retrospect had to have been planned, without dribbling, Wade whipped the ball the full length of the court towards LeBron who was already streaking.
Memory can play tricks on you, but here are things I remember now as fact:
1). LeBron was not yet at halfcourt when the ball was in the air.
2). There were two Mavs running with LeBron.
3). The names of the two Mavs I don’t remember because they are irrelevant to the story. Their scenery – shrubs, a grass meadow, dandelions - through which LeBron will soon romp.
4). The pass was a moonshot, and my brain knows it was only in the air for a few seconds.
5). It still felt like forever.
6). How else can you explain that, starting at the three point line, LeBron began chopping his steps like an outfielder preparing to snag a home run, like peak Calvin Johnson preparing to catch a Hail Mary?
7). How else can you explain that all three players are in the air somewhere above the free throw line? The Mavs had jumped, but LeBron elevated. In the air they looked like children hugging a man’s waist.
8). How else can you explain that LeBron noticed his shoes are unlaced, knew that it would be dangerous to land on an unlaced shoe, took his eyes off the ball, knowing it would be there when he was done, reached down, and re-laced his shoe in mid-air? With one hand. With the other hand he chugged one of those really small cups of Gatorade, which he must have snagged while sprinting down-court from an outstretched hand like a marathon runner might.
9). How else could LeBron catch the ball, and the two Mavs just bounce off of him? A fact of LeBron: if men ram into him in mid-air they, quite literally, bounce off of him.
10). How else could LeBron land firmly in stride, shoes safely laced, while the two Mavs land in a cartoonish heap? LeBron takes two casual strides and lays the ball in.
If you’ve seen LeBron play, you probably have your own LeBron story. He would have done something like this tonight. But, of course, he’s not playing.
If you paid money to see LeBron do something like this tonight, (Hrdlicka note: let’s keep it 100, no one pays money to see Kyrie or Love play) then you should be mad. Hopefully, an increased chance of a Grizzly win will drown your sorrows.
If not, then I humbly suggest that you direct your anger not at Ty Lue, or the Cavs, or the Grizzlies, or even LeBron himself. Get mad at the NBA.
The Cavs whole season is geared towards maximizing their chances at a title. Taking every precaution to ensure that LeBron is at peak LeBron-ness in the playoffs is the best way to do this.
Ty Lue would probably be fired if the Cavs don’t make it to the NBA Finals. Given the expectations, a healthy LeBron might literally be the only thing keeping Lue employed.
The Grizzlies can’t control whether a player on another team plays or not. Suggestions that the Grizzlies reimburse fans for another team’s star not playing are silly. Would you demand your money back from the Holiday Inn Orlando because your favorite Harry Potter ride was closed for maintenance? (Hrdlicka note: Harry Potter World is dope. Hogsmeade and Daigon Alley are dope. Butter beer is dope. You know what is not dope? Rides. Who wants to be shaken by a gigantic machine that might kill you? Don’t at me.)
The Cavs are acting rationally by sitting their Big Three, just as the Grizzlies acted rationally by sitting Gasol. They can only operate within the rules and schedule the NBA sets forth, and the NBA schedule is a ludicrous antique from the previous century.
The players were not tougher before. They were ignorant of how badly the season and travel was hurting their bodies. Larry Bird played just thirteen seasons. At age 33 and coming off surgery on both heels, he played 2,944 minutes. He would retire in two more years, failing to play more than 60 games. LeBron is entering his 14th season – already one more than Bird – and is still a must see ticket.
How many more years would Bird play in the year 2016? How many more years has LeBron played by meticulously managing his body like a Chinese rock garden (Hrdlicka note: Chinese rock gardens are amazing. You should check them out.)
If you want to be angry, be angry that each team sinks hundreds of millions of dollars into players who are worth zero if they get injured, but the NBA still schedules them to play back to back days, sometimes four days in five. An NBA game is like sprinting, leaping, bobbing and weaving your way through a 5k race. Asking extremely large men to do this in back to back nights in two different time zones with very little time to maintenance (Hrdlicka note: I suspect the average person does not know how much time every day even a former Division 3 athlete like myself devoted simply to repairing the damage and wear that occurs to an athlete’s body, and that’s just when everything goes right.) seems like a poor plan.
Sport science says it’s a bad plan, and while I don’t have access to exactly why, the teams do and their actions speak loudly. The Spurs have been telling us it’s a bad plan for half a decade. Everyone else is catching on.
So is the league. At a certain point, if fans begin to wonder whether LeBron will play the one time he comes to their city, those games become less valuable. I suspect we are still at least several years away from this problem manifesting itself in a discernible way in the box office or secondary ticket market, but secondary damage to the NBA brand is probably already here. Fans, like voters, are not immune to conditioning. Fans “know” that the outcome of individual regular season games are very small parts of a larger whole. Fans see players rest and know that teams are ceding the outcome. There is a hypothetical long run tipping point – several years away – where enough fans on the margin begin to opt out. These are the people who begin to question whether $50 spent at an NBA game is better spent on movies, or some other form of entertainment.
The NBA knows this, and leaks from the new CBA negotiations suggest that eliminating the worst parts of the travel schedule are a key priority. I think the season should be shortened to a maximum of 76 games as well, but that’s a subject for another time.
Be angry that LeBron is not playing tonight, but be angry at the NBA. And most of all, be grateful that the best player in the world is still a must see ticket. Had he played in the 80’s, there’s a good chance he’d already be gone.