When LeBron James sprinted the length of the Oracle Arena floor and soared to meet Andre Iguodala's breakaway layup attempt at the glass in Game 7 of last season's NBA Finals, he was playing in only his 23rd game over a span of 75 days.
The Block has been immortalized as one of the signature plays in NBA history, but it wasn't the first glimpse of vintage LeBron the world witnessed during Cleveland's run to the title. James' 43 dunks during the postseason eclipsed his previous high of 30. At age 31, he consistently appeared to be the spryest player on the floor against younger opponents on Golden State, Toronto and Detroit.
There's little mystery as to why a transcendent superstar subjected to playing as many as five games in a week during the regular season would enjoy a spring revival: In the postseason, that workload was reduced to fewer than a single game every three days. Under the current playoff format, a team never plays on consecutive days, and that format is an admission by the league that at the moment when all eyes are on the NBA and its best talent, the more rest, the better.
The poor methodology tolerated in crafting the regular-season schedule -- the lockout-shortened 2011 postseason notwithstanding -- doesn't fly when the world is watching.
Now the league seems ready to take action in the new collective bargaining agreement with players. Sources told ESPN that going forward, NBA teams will play two or three fewer preseason games. In turn, the regular season will begin a week to 10 days earlier, which will allow NBA teams to stretch 82 games over a more generous span of time.
This measure could eliminate blocks of four games in five nights and drastically reduce the number of back-to-back sets. In implementing these reforms, the NBA has come closer than ever to codifying what modern science, the league's players and coaches, and commissioner Adam Silver have all publicly acknowledged in recent years:
Playing 82 regular-season games over a period of 170 days is an impediment to optimal athletic performance and world-class basketball on a nightly basis.
"Playing a four-in-five or a five-in-seven is a different kind of feeling," says Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum. "It's mentally draining. It's physically draining. You're not getting a lot of sleep. You're exhausted and the other team knows it."
McCollum made a point to mention a dreaded upcoming trip when the Trail Blazers will play in nine different cities in four different time zones over a 15-day span. The trip includes a five-games-in-seven-days bundle that concludes with a jaunt to Portland for a single game after playing the previous night in Los Angeles. After that, the Trail Blazers head right back out on the road for three more away games. The reform should ameliorate some of the madness.
"Players will be sharper," McCollum says. "Execution will be better. There will be fewer 'DNP-Rests' and scheduling losses. Fans want to see opponents when both teams are fresh. Players want that too. It's better basketball."
The fact that "scheduling loss" is a term of art in the NBA underscores how necessary a schedule overhaul is. Though much of the attention in executive suites around the league will focus on the new CBA's more aggressive revenue sharing and the cap implication of its revised salary structure, the stipulations for the schedule are a nontrivial concession by the league. Dozens of preseason dates that generate revenue for ownership -- to the chagrin of season-ticket holders who have to fork over their money for tasteless aperitifs -- will be wiped away.
"It's mentally draining. It's physically draining. You're not getting a lot of sleep. You're exhausted and the other team knows it."Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, on playing through some of the schedule's toughest stretches
But in exchange, the league and its owners are investing in the health and well-being of the athletes who drive the value of the NBA. As Silver told McCollum in an interview for The Players' Tribune last summer, "The science is [telling us] that the No. 1 correlation between play and injuries is fatigue."
The San Antonio Spurs have been incorporating this science into their workflow for years, with Tim Duncan as basketball's ultimate case study. Consulting with top performance specialists, breaking down the data, and collaborating across the basketball operations staff, the Spurs created best practices that included routinely sitting their best players when the schedule demanded it -- even if it meant eliciting the ire of the league office.
Less than four years after hitting the Spurs with a $250,000 fine for resting their players at optimal times, the NBA is implementing the Spurs' philosophy as official league policy.
Back-to-backs are the scourge of an NBA team's calendar. Not only do consecutive games deny world-class athletes prime recovery time, but in the vast majority of instances, players are required to board flights late and arrive at their destinations at ungodly hours. Rarely a week goes by in the NBA without a play-by-play announcer noting that a team arrived at the hotel at 3 a.m. the morning of the game.
"When you hear that announced, you've already sort of resigned yourself to feel like, 'Well, this isn't what I paid for,'" says W. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep specialist who has consulted numerous teams across professional sports, including the Thunder and Wizards.
"A team wouldn't play wearing uniforms that were too restrictive to shoot the basketball or a with a rim whose height wasn't adjusted properly. No one would stand for any of that. Yet having players get into their hotel rooms after 3 o'clock in the morning has become a strange accepted part of the sport. We all but guarantee that these athletes aren't playing at an elite level."
Winter noted that he attended a recent NHL game featuring the New York Rangers, a team he works with, who were playing their fifth game in eight days. "From the start, you kind of got the impression watching them play, 'Yeeeeah, probably not the best we're going to see them play this year," Winter says.
The Rangers were blanked by Ottawa 2-0, the first time all season they'd been shut out.
The drive to reduce the load for NBA players has never been a gesture of sympathy. A more sparing schedule isn't coddling an NBA player any more than a driver not riding the clutch is coddling a manual transmission. The objective isn't altruism -- it's performance. That's always been the NBA's strongest selling point. The NFL revels in its ritual Sundays and pageantry, while baseball offers nostalgia and mythology.
But the NBA is where the athletes rule, and the league will ascend only as high as its superstars can soar.
They'd soar higher if the NBA reduced the overall docket of 82 games in addition to the back-to-backs, but the nature of progress is incremental, especially when money is at stake. And after two decades of contentious CBA negotiations that produced a couple of work stoppages and perpetual grumbling, NBA players and owners are in the process of assembling a new contract that, for the first time, considers empirical scientific evidence when formulating its schedule.
Next season, the choice between putting the best product on the floor in January and playing to win in June won't stand in such stark contrast.