In 2017, NBA owners gave commissioner Adam Silver broad power to punish teams for resting players in certain circumstances.
Yet, the Rockets and John Wall agreed (at least initially) he wouldn’t play for them this season. The Thunder and Al Horford made a similar arrangement with months to go last season. Now, the Knicks and Kemba Walker have agreed on him sitting the rest of this season.
Of course, I think it’s a problem when players are paid not to play. In some cases, that’s by mutual agreement with the team. It may be a team that’s in a rebuilding situation that is focused on its younger players. There’s a sense that that veteran player isn’t fitting in, for whatever reason, through the new culture they’re trying to create. And it’s a hard line there because, if it truly is by mutual agreement, I’m not sure the league office should be interfering.
When the Spurs got fined for resting DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Jakob Poeltl last season, were the players really opposed to sitting? When the Timberwolves got fined for resting D'Angelo Russell the year before, was he really opposed to sitting?
It seems mutual agreements between a team and player on the player sitting is sometimes enough to thwart NBA interference, sometimes not.
Teams and their players mutually agreeing on rest was increasingly common before the new rules. Both teams and their players wanted the players fresh for the playoffs and beyond, and both sides were willing to sacrifice in the regular season.
However, the NBA sells tickets to and televises regular-season games. A team that rests its stars was not doing its part to create a quality product. That’s a problem in a league with revenue sharing (both directly and indirectly through national TV contracts and visiting teams drawing fans on the road). Teams that rested their stars were reaping all the benefits without incurring all the costs.
In regard to the specific examples of Wall and Horford, the underlying issue is tanking. Well outside the postseason race, Houston this year and Oklahoma City last year became especially incentivized to lose. Draft position becomes teams’ overwhelmingly powerful motivator once they’ve cemented themselves in the basement. If teams like the Rockets and Thunder had incentive to win, maybe they’d play players like Wall and Horford.
New York is seemingly still trying to win and deems Walker unworthy of its rotation. At that point, letting Walker sit completely looks like a favor to him in advance of next season. But if they had higher stakes than a longshot chance at the play-in tournament at the expense of draft position, the Knicks might be more inclined to keep Walker available for depth.
The NBA can avoid interfering in a team’s mutual decision to sit a player while still getting the desired outcome by reducing – or even eliminating – the incentive to tank.