After being listed as likely to play on Nov. 12 against the Boston Celtics, NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the Milwaukee Bucks’ overtime loss to the Boston Celtics with a sprained ankle. Antetokounmpo has neither a reputation for injury prone nor a player who regularly asks to be released from training. But his absence caught the attention of longtime NBA player Richard Jefferson, who criticized the current generation of players for their willingness to wear street clothes on game night.
Antetokounmpo returned to the lineup on Nov. 14, scoring 26 points on 9 of 21 shots, but the Atlanta Hawks blew up Milwaukee, 120-100. Evidence of Antetokounmpo’s ankle problems showed in his five rebounds, the lowest of the season. He’s still averaging 11.3 boards per game, and his lack of activity on the glass in Atlanta indicates he’s being slowed down to come out of the ground. Still, Jefferson brings up an interesting point, even though it comes across as “old man yelling at kids on the lawn” material.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a sustainable player by today’s standards
In his ninth NBA season, Giannis Antetokounmpo played 602 of 651 possible regular season games. He missed 11 games last season and 10 in each of the previous two. His style of play lends itself to considerable contact and his explosive athleticism can take a toll on the joints.
The two games he missed at the end of the Eastern Conference Finals last year after spraining his knee are the only playoff games Antetokounmpo has missed in six playoff trips. By numbers, he has played in 64 of 66 possible matches. Antetokounmpo has hinted he could have rushed his return to play in the NBA Finals, but he averages 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. And, you know, Milwaukee won the big gold trophy. Risk had its rewards.
The San Antonio Spurs of the early 2010s are considered the pioneers of resting players during the regular season. Coach Gregg Popovich has faced an aging roster, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and others after their 30th birthday.
But the art of resting players is as old as the NBA itself. Before the NBA abolished the injured list, expanding the rosters to 15 players with an inactive roster every night in 2005, the most common “injury” was back spasms. Often times, a player would develop back spasms and be on the injured list when a player signed a 10-day contract for a try.
After moving to the Toronto Raptors and later the Los Angeles Clippers, Kawhi Leonard became the face of a new designation in the NBA, load management. It sounds a lot more scientific than just listing “rest” as the reason for making a player inactive on any given night.
But the main point of Richard Jefferson remains valid.
Richard Jefferson says players no longer pride themselves on being available every night
On ESPN NBA Countdown On November 12, analyst Richard Jefferson responded to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s absence from the Bucks roster with a broad statement about the NBA:
“Everyone puts their fingerprints on it, and there was a time when playing 82 games was a badge of honor. It is no longer a badge of honor. It is about how long can we stay healthy and preserve it in the long term.
On the same show, Stephen A. Smith shared a conversation he had with a player last season. Smith called the player out to be off the ground.
“He called me an hour later, and he said, ‘Stephen A., that’s not our call,’” Smith said. “The medical staff come in, they make a call and they have the power to usurp the coaches, a power given to them by management. A lot of times the players want to play and the medical staff make us sit down, and we have no control over that.
As was the case with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA Finals, it becomes a risk-reward formula that the franchise’s medical staff must resolve. Yes, teams want to win every game and most players prefer to play rather than sit down. Mitigating this competitive fire is part of the role of medical personnel.
The numbers confirm Richard Jefferson’s point
Richard Jefferson’s NBA career began in 2001 with the New Jersey Nets. In 17 seasons, he played 82 games four times, including two consecutive seasons in 2007-08 and 2008-09. In 2013-14, at 33, he also played every game.
But the numbers show that there is much less importance in playing every game than it once was.
During Jefferson’s rookie year of 2001-02, 42 players appeared in at least 82 games. Two, Bo Outlaw and Jalen Rose, played in 83 after switching teams. Five years later, in 2006-07, the number of players making 82 appearances dropped to 36.
Since 2011-2012 was a lockout season, we will move to 2012-2013. Only 28 players have registered 82 games this season. In 2018-19, the last time the NBA played an 82-game schedule, 21 players registered a full roster.
The NBA moved to an 82-game schedule in 1967. That season, 26 players recorded 82 games played. But there were only 12 teams and 151 players on the register. As a percentage, 17.2% of NBA players have not missed a game.
And for all his durability, Giannis Antetokounmpo never appeared in the 82 games. The closest he came was in 2014-15, his second season when he recorded 81.
Considering the size of contracts, especially for superstar players, investing becomes a higher priority than the daily grind. If there is the slightest risk that a player could turn a nagging injury into a long-term problem (or, in the worst-case scenario, a career-ending illness), the team will err on the side of caution.
In the age of nine-figure contracts, this only makes sense commercially. Playing every game is great bragging rights, but it’s not worth risking a team’s season or the future of a franchise just to put the number on the stats sheet.
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