The NBA avoided an early existential crisis Sunday night when the reigning league MVP was in fact able to put on his uniform and take the court with the other available Philadelphia 76ers for their home opener.
For a few hours, Joel Embiid was “questionable” to play in the Sixers’ third game of the season. Not because he is hurt, but for “rest.”
“There’s nothing injury-wise. We just played last night, traveled and all that stuff,” explained Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse, offering Sixers fans the chance to breathe easy and NBA officials a reason to cringe.
‘Super dominating’: Joel Embiid shows NBA that he remains the 76ers franchise
Had Embiid rested Sunday against the Portland Trail Blazers, it would have been a direct and serious challenge to the NBA’s new policy that restricts when teams can keep stars such as Embiid out of games when they are not injured — a policy that is already off to an inauspicious start with several All-Stars having missed games.
The Sixers drew the attention of NBA investigators when James Harden missed Philadelphia’s season opener Thursday in Milwaukee due to “return to competition reconditioning” according to the injury report. Harden and the Sixers have been fighting for months over his trade demand — and Harden returned to the team Tuesday after being absent for more than a week — but he is nevertheless healthy and under contract. Philadelphia’s game against the Bucks was broadcast on TNT, and because Harden was neither in uniform nor on the bench, technically, the Sixers committed two violations of the league’s new rules.
If Embiid had missed the game Sunday, with Harden still out and neither of them injured, it would have been another potential — and more egregious — violation. But the storm clouds have not yet cleared across the league.
The NBA season, and its “player participation policy,” are not even a week old, and household names such as Harden, Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell, among others, have already missed games. There has been no accusation made by the league that a star who has missed a game in this young season because of injury was actually healthy, but focusing on whether teams are following the letter of the law would be missing the point.
NBA coaches not buying what Dumars and the league are selling on load management
Earlier in October, in trying to enunciate how serious the NBA is about its players appearing in more regular-season games, executive vice president Joe Dumars said the league has new data that shows “load management” doesn’t work, and its mission is to “re-establish” a culture of an 82-game season. One could argue that, so far, the league’s participation policy isn’t working to achieve that goal.
“I will always say this, like, I love our guys to play, and I want our guys to play as many games as they can, as safely as they possibly can, (but) injuries happen and we’ll never sacrifice that (safety) to get a guy on the floor in an 82-game season,” Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before Saturday’s game un Cleveland, in which he sat three recent All-Stars out of a loss to the Indiana Pacers. All of the players out, including Mitchell, were listed as injured.
“I do think it is important that our guys are on the floor, but we will always look to protect them,” Bickerstaff said. “Injuries are coming or, you know, if you’re right on that cusp where you feel something come in that, you know, could turn into something worse.”
In September, the league passed (with players union approval) rules governing how teams can rest players (especially stars) who are not obviously hurt. The NBA does not want “star players,” or All-Stars from the past three seasons, missing national TV games, road games or the same game as a star teammate, for “rest.”
The league built into its policy an exception for older players, and there are other loopholes, such as teams simply assigning an injury to a player they wanted to rest — a time-honored tradition in the NBA, albeit for older players late in seasons. Players missing games for rest or to monitor minor aches and pains in October and November, that’s new. Under the new policy, such injuries can be investigated by the league.
After authoring new rules to get players onto the court more often, and sending both Dumars and commissioner Adam Silver out to say the NBA is serious about this, stars are still missing games either without being injured at all or seriously injured or at the same time as other star teammates.
Clearly, the Sixers were at least thinking about sitting Embiid, who is healthy but has an extensive injury history, as well as a track record of skipping one of two games on consecutive nights.
“Guys are still not in game shape just because of the lack of games,” Nurse said. “No matter whatever you do, you get the games, you need some games to get in that kind of condition. So that’s always a challenge.”
Asked if the league’s “player participation policy” complicated the Sixers’ decision on Embiid for Sunday’s game, Nurse said “I think so, a little bit.”
In Cleveland, Jarrett Allen, an All-Star two seasons ago, hasn’t played this season because of an ankle injury from training camp. Darius Garland, an All-Star two years ago, was on the injury report for the team’s season opener Wednesday in Brooklyn with a hamstring strain. He played 33 minutes in that game but was held out of home games Friday and Saturday.
On Saturday against the Pacers, with two Cavs stars out already, Mitchell was held out because of hamstring soreness after scoring 43 points in 42 minutes in Friday’s loss to Oklahoma City. Mitchell was seen walking gingerly in the locker room after that game but was moving much better in street clothes Saturday.
“It started when he started cramping (Friday) night in the fourth quarter,” Bickerstaff said of Mitchell’s injury. “It’s just not something that, you know, we don’t want to mess around with.”
It just so happens that the next nationally televised game is Tuesday in Cleveland, a rematch of an Eastern Conference first-round series between the Cavs and Knicks on TNT. It’s possible Cleveland has all three of its stars back, which is of course what the NBA and the network wants. But, one league source said, if Mitchell plays against the Knicks, the NBA may question why he didn’t play Saturday — especially with two other stars out.
The situation in Phoenix is similar to the one in Cleveland, as far as nagging injuries to multiple stars go. Bradley Beal has been dealing with a sore back since training camp. Schedule makers put the Suns’ first two games on TNT, and Beal couldn’t play in either. He’s yet to appear in any of Phoenix’ three games. Devin Booker, meanwhile, played in the opener against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday and scored 32 points in 37 minutes. He was on the court for the end of that game but hasn’t played since because of a foot sprain the Suns say he suffered against the Warriors.
NBA’s sudden change of heart on load management is odd, but better late than never
In Miami, no one is saying there was anything wrong with Butler. The Heat simply wanted to keep him out of the third game of the season for rest. At least they asked first.
According to the Miami Herald, the Heat checked with the league before resting Butler on Saturday in Minneapolis, even though, a league source said, resting Butler would not have been a violation of the new rules. Butler played in the nationally televised game the night before against the Celtics and, though he is healthy and the season is young, he has a history of knee trouble.
Khris Middleton isn’t hurt, either. But at one time he was. On Saturday, Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said Middleton would not play Sunday against Atlanta — in Milwaukee’s second game of the season — but should be available Monday against the Heat.
The reason? Injury “management.” Middleton underwent a small surgical procedure on his knee last summer, has battled injuries for the past two seasons and played just 16 minutes in the Bucks’ opener Thursday.
“The term injury recovery, (injury) management, I mean, that’s a real thing,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “I mean, that’s a real fact. If you have someone that’s recovering from a significant injury and the doctors are saying that back-to-backs are a bad idea or shouldn’t happen, at least for a certain period of time, then, you know, that’s a doctor’s prescription. So, all that stuff is still in play as far as I’m concerned.
“I think all of us want to deliver a product that is a great product and is a consistent product,” Carlisle continued, adding: “People, fans want to see the stars on the floor. And, you know, it’s certainly the whole thing is understandable.”
National TV games are a driving factor in the league’s push — the league has said the new, multi-billion-dollar TV contract it will be negotiating is a concern — but so are situations like one in Cleveland last season. The Warriors and Bucks were in town on consecutive nights, and both teams rested virtually all of their stars (the Cavs sat Mitchell from one of the games too), leaving fans to miss out on seeing six All-Stars play.
The Warriors have one of the most veteran teams in the league, with multiple All-Stars who have extensive injury histories. But coach Steve Kerr said he intended to play all of them in the team’s upcoming back-to-back games, including a set Sunday and Monday.
“I think it’s good for the consumer to see stars out there on a daily basis,” said Klay Thompson, one of the Warriors who didn’t play that night in Cleveland last season and has a recent history of devastating leg injuries. Thompson said he wants to play on back-to-back nights this season.
“The league has realized that and hopefully going forward will be more star participation because it’s a star-driven business just like any other entertainment industry,” Thompson said.
The days of many players appearing in all 82 games, or close, like when Dumars and Michael Jordan played in the ’80s and ’90s, are a distant memory. Perhaps these early absences of stars can be explained at least in part by bad luck, some unfortunate nagging injuries that will go away with, well, rest.
But it’s hard to say much has changed yet with the league’s new policy in place.
“You know, we make the joke — the more trainers you hire, the more injuries there are,” said Bickerstaff, whose father, Bernie, was a longtime NBA coach. “Like back in those days, like there was one trainer and he couldn’t get to everybody. But I think the difference between then and now is the diagnosis of everything, because I do think guys just didn’t go in the training room as much because there wasn’t the opportunity to go in as much.
“But I do think if you’re around some of those older guys and you watch how they move and how they walk and like, you know, there’s things that had lasted past basketball for them,” Bickerstaff continued. “So, you know, there is a balance.”
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— The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Mike Vorkunov contributed to this report.
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(Photo of Jimmy Butler: David Berding / Getty Images)