The Clippers announced that Kawhi Leonard is out for tonight's game against the Jazz; unsurprisingly and justifiably, ESPN management is not happy about it, The Big Lead has learned. An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment.
You could see this frustration manifested on The Jump. Rachel Nichols called the NBA and asked if the Clippers would be fined, given that load-managing stars on national TV is supposed to be against their rules:
They said that the team was in compliance with their policy, which a) doesn't really make sense considering what the alleged rule is, and b) even if the Clippers were fined $100,000, it'd be .0019 percent of Steve Ballmer's net worth. This is not an exaggeration. To quote Axe from Billions: worth it.
After the bizarre calf saga triggering his exit from the Spurs, Kawhi sat out 22 regular season games last year. The Raptors rode this strategy to a championship in no small part because of his fresh legs, and the Clippers would honestly be stupid not to repeat it. He's hardly the only player and they're hardly the only team who load manage -- and this story isn't new. You can also see how it would be a bad look for Kawhi to sit out tomorrow night, ducking San Antonio.
But it really is a pox on the regular season for multiple layers of the NBA's customers -- their TV rights partners both locally and nationally, people who watch games on TV, and fans who buy tickets to the games. The TV contracts total billions of dollars. The narrative for the health of TV is all driven by how they do year-over-year. Down just a little bit and the world thinks the sky is falling. ESPN, TNT, and the local rightsholders have no Kevin Durant all season, no Klay Thompson for at least most of it, and no Zion Williamson for over a month. ESPN was already going to have its viewership hurt tonight by Game 7 of the World Series and now the two players in this game the country has most heard of -- Kawhi and Paul George -- are out. If you're not a big Clippers or Jazz fan, how could you care to even peruse it during commercial breaks?
And if you're going to the game in Salt Lake City, you lost the opportunity to see probably the best player in the world. Why would you ever buy NBA tickets in advance? You can recognize that this is the smart thing for the Clippers to do while also understanding that it's a terrible trend for the league's long-term business health. Yes, the whole world wants the stars healthy for the playoffs when the stakes are highest and the most people tune in, but the status quo is in disservice to the long-term greater good and sustainability of the sport.
Think about this: If it's smart for Kawhi to load manage, it's also smart for LeBron -- who missed 27 regular season games last year -- to do it. Anthony Davis too. The Lakers have several times this season where they are on national TV in one leg of a back-to-back. They'll be forced with the decision in a couple weeks with the Suns one night and Golden State the next night on TNT. In February they have Memphis the night before the Pelicans on ESPN.
In March they play Utah the night after they play on ESPN against the Nuggets, so it's a good bet Salt Lake City will miss seeing LeBron too. (Less likely but not impossible is ESPN does here, and we reconvene to talk about how they're not happy about it.) There are more but you get the point. You can also go through and start applying this to Giannis, Steph, Harden, Westbrook, Embiid, and Kyrie. Zion when he starts playing too. It goes on and on. For them to play back-to-backs effectively puts them at a competitive disadvantage to Kawhi and the Clippers.
If the NBA persistently tells us that the regular season doesn't matter, that's what we're all going to think. There's a risk there of heading in the direction of college basketball, where all but the diehards only tune in for the postseason. The NBA's not there, yet, but this is really something they have to figure out. It's not like they haven't tried. They have extended the season so there are fewer back-to-backs. They've even talked about shortening it. This is the most competitive environment for entertainment eyeballs in TV history and if the NBA doesn't halt the erosion of its regular season, there will be consequences.
If Kawhi is sitting out when it's not even November yet, maybe they have to figure out how to shorten the season so there are zero back-to-backs. But they have to somehow find a way to fix this problem before it cascades out of control.