This is not some belated April Fools' joke. The NBA in March and April has become a farce in many, many ways on both ends of the standings.
At a time when the Playoff races are supposed to be heating up and teams are supposed to be hitting their peaks befor ethe Playoffs, the best teams are sitting stars and getting them healthy. Now that Miami's 27-game win streak is out of the way, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are taking their sabbaticals and taking selected games off, including Sunday's win over the Spurs (a sort of revenge game).
To avoid the kind of fines that the Spurs organization took when Gregg Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home before a December game in Miami, Erik Spoelstra announced the team's starting lineup and who would be in and out of the lineup at the morning's shootaround. Not something a Pat Riley disciple would normally do.
The fact that this practice has gotten to the point where teams fear fines says something else.
There are legitimate injuries however. Maybe LeBron James (superhuman that he is) is nursing a strained right hamstring. It is probably enough that he could play through if the game were important. However, Miami's goal is clearly the Playoffs. A regular season game has very little meaning for them — particularly with the lead they have opened up in the Eastern Conference thanks to that win streak.
Tanking, it would appear, is not reserved to the teams at the bottom of the league.
This could be one of the first big issues that NBA commissioner-elect Adam Silver tries to tackle. How does he motivate his teams to put their best product on the floor every night, even when it may not ultimately matter for Playoff positioning? The outrage over what Popovich did was less out of his unending desire to win and more out of the idea that the casual fan who could afford to see only one game would miss out on seeing the league's top stars.
There are a few questions that need to be asked:
First, is this really a problem?
For fans that are going to games anyway and have thoughts on the Playoffs, no it is not. This fan wants to win championships and so having a James or a Duncan sit out to prevent wear and tear over the course of an 82-game season is part of that process.
A casual fan may cry foul and may have a point. NBA games are expensive and if you only get to see one game per year and a player is "resting" you have a right to feel cheated. Adding in last year's lockout season, the fans of San Antonio have not seen LeBron James in uniform for two years. Just think if those were fans in a more attendance-starved area like Milwaukee or Washington.
This is a legitimate interest for the NBA's bottom line.
The second question is what can the NBA do about it?
Maybe an earlier deadline for filing lineups so that fans can know who will and who will not play could be a possible solution.
Another might be creating a "star exception" into individual ticket plans that would allow fans to exchange tickets should a star end up sitting out. This of course creates a problem in distinguishing who a star is and what is a legitimate reason for sitting out. It would vastly cut into the bottom line for a team like the Bulls this year with Derrick Rose mising (virtually) the entire season.
No solution seems perfect.
And if the goal is winning a championship, at the top of the league, there seems to be no way around this. Injuries are largely subjective. What a player is willing to play through may change on a day-to-day or game-to-game basis. And there is always a way for coaches to cut corners or skirt the rules for their own benefit.
Tanking at the bottom of the league at least has the excuse of developing young talent. That is something those teams should aspire to do if given the chance (even if it means more losing). That decision is up to the team itself.
This decision seems to be too.
It might create some bad basketball in March, when the NBA is competing directly against NCAA basketball and losing much of the time, but it feels unavoidable unless the league finds a way to spice up the end of the regular season and devalue the NBA Finals in some way to make these games worth it. Leading up to that, if you are looking for NBA Playoff odds during this dreary part of the season, you will at least know some of the teams worth paying attention to.