Should tired stars rest or play for their fans? An alternative, team-focused solution

Both Deng and Bryant have played through ligament tears in their hands. Wow.

This Sunday during the Heat-Magic game, announcers Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen took opposing views on whether fatigued and nicked-up stars should conserve themselves for the playoffs or whether they should take the floor for the sake of toughness, their fans, and regular season sanctity. To me, we could circumvent the issue by emphasizing team-play rather than superstars. Before I tie this shift in emphasis to regular-season popularity, I will recap JVG and Breen’s discussion and put it in the context of the current season.

This year we have seen increased injuries, with reigning MVP Derrick Rose missing games due to injury and reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki sitting out to recondition himself. Fans pay exorbitant ticket prices to see their favorite players, and it must be disappointing for fans that only go to one game a season to find their favorite player wearing Armani on the pine instead of Adidas on the hardwood.

Jeff Van Gundy was worried that we coddle today’s NBA stars, and as a result, stars rest easy on the bench while fans suffer in their $100+ seats. Breen countered, reminding JVG and the world that this season is different with its compressed schedule and shortened training camps. Why should owners want their players taking risks in January when they could be winning rings in June?

When the debate is framed in this pick-your-poison fashion, we either face devalued regular season games or players running the risk of injury and fatigue come playoff time. If we think outside of our own cultural box of basketball, there is a third, long-term solution to this catch-22: we can move away from the superstar-driven NBA and into the realm of a team-centered basketball so that teams can weather the storm of player-injuries and disgruntled fans.

Many (to the extent that “many” read this blog) will read my suggestion and laugh, claiming, “The NBA is driven by superstars because superstars are the primary factors in winning games and championships, not because of our desire for it to be this way.” This is partially true. The league is currently set up–from a rule-book and marketing perspective–in such a way that superstardom is encouraged.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, as you’ll see in my discussion of FIBA and the NCAA. In a world where teams reign supreme, fans and franchises can survive the loss of a star player, thus creating a more sustainable model for franchise popularity and loyalty.

Rules, such as illegal hand-checking and illegal defenses, and decreased physicality differentiate the NBA from FIBA and, to an extent, NCAA basketball; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that FIBA and NCAA basketball is more team-oriented. Ostensibly, those rules merely make it tougher for defenses and open up offenses, but in practice, they also allow star players to drive and get “superstar” calls more often than they could otherwise. On the flip-side, FIBA and NCAA offenses require more ball-movement and player-movement, which in practice, means the ball finds its way into more players’ hands each possession, thereby undermining the role of the superstar.

Ask yourself this question: With over 300 Division I NCAA teams and and only a handful of NBA-level prospects, why do we not find more superstar-style play in the highly variable talent pool of NCAA hoops? It comes down to the aforementioned rules and, as you’ll see below, culture.

Despite the fact that scoring totals have a weak relationship with winning (relative to other important stats), this stat overwhelmingly and irrationally determines NBA salaries. One might think that, hey, this isn’t irrational because scorers might bring fans to games and help sell NBA jerseys. The truth is that even in the NBA, winning brings fans to games much more than stars or scorers. The jersey sales and irrational salary distribution speak to a cultural emphasis on superstars and scoring.

This stands in stark contrast to NCAA and FIBA, where jerseys are frequently sold without a number or player’s name on the jersey. And yes, I understand that the amateur status of NCAA players poses difficulty to having player-specific jerseys; likewise, I know that NBA fans wear plenty of team-specific memorabilia to games. That said, the point about jerseys underscores a larger point–in FIBA and NCAA ball, the rules and the culture interact in such a way that both teams and their fans are more team-oriented than in the NBA.

To bring this back to Breen and Van Gundy’s debate, I would like to chime in and say there wouldn’t be a debate in the first place if the NBA weren’t the superstar-driven league it is. Rose and Nowitzki sitting out will always be soul-crushing for fans, in both the regular season and the postseason, because those players are truly important, talented, and exciting. But our satisfaction with basketball and the regular season doesn’t have to depend on them as heavily as it does. With a few rule changes and more intelligent salary incentives, we’d find ourselves entering a new paradigm in the NBA–a shift that would harmonize the NBA game with NCAA and FIBA basketball, promote better management and playing habits in the NBA game, and allow fans to maintain their excitement and teams to sustain their popularity through thick and thin.

What do you think about the injuries and superstars? Are these claims valid or a sad case of over-analysis? Comment on the article or email us at AGRBasketball (at) gmail.com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRBasketball on Twitter and to “like” us on Facebook!

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