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New NBA Contract With Players Union Sees Reduced Number Of Back-To-Back Games


The new NBA contract with its players' union features pay hikes and other bonuses, but one provision that got our attention - a move to cut down on the number of back-to-back games. The league's packed schedule takes a toll on its athletes, and there's been a growing trend of coaches resting their star players. The number of instances where a player sat out a game to rest more than tripled over the last three years.

ESPN's Tom Haberstroh has researched the spread of DNP rest. DNP stands for did not play. And he says it's gone up partly because those back-to-back games on the road are a big cause of injuries. Welcome to the program.

TOM HABERSTROH: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So how do we know this about back-to-back games contributing to injuries?

HABERSTROH: Well, a researcher out at University of Utah, Masa Teramoto, actually researched injury rates in the NBA and found that three and a half times more injuries occur on the road back-to-backs, which means you play in one city on a Tuesday, then you get on a plane overnight and play in another city on Wednesday, than when they just play at home. And so the travel seems to be increasing the risk of injuries for these players, which I think is a real big reason why coaches are looking at this situation and saying, yeah, maybe you shouldn't play that second game.

CORNISH: You were writing about this - about games - last night, right? And there was something like 20 teams playing. How many big names sat out to rest?

HABERSTROH: Oh, several - I think about five - LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins, all star players in the NBA, "healthy," quote-unquote, and taking the night off.

CORNISH: How do the fans react to this, right? If you waited a long time, paid hundreds of dollars for a ticket to see a star player come to your town - are they responding well to it?

HABERSTROH: No, they're not because the NBA is a superstar league. And so you wait all year round. If you're a Memphis Grizzlies fan, the only team in Tennessee, and you drive to the game, and you show up, and you find out that LeBron James is not playing, and you're like, wait, I just checked the injury report. He's fine. One fan last night in Memphis, when LeBron did not show up, said, LeBron, thanks for ruining my Christmas.

CORNISH: Oh, man (laughter).

HABERSTROH: That was pretty - they're not happy about this. So he is the Grinch of the NBA, apparently.

CORNISH: You've written about one of the coaches who was early to embrace this, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He once was fined by the league for sitting out four stars in a nationally televised game. I mean, how has the thinking changed, right? Is the league still (laughter) kind of giving the coaches side-eye for sitting out players?

HABERSTROH: Yeah. Well, I think five years ago when that happened, I was there in Miami when the San Antonio Spurs were fined a quarter-million dollars. It was a different commissioner, David Stern. Now it's Adam Silver. And Adam Silver now has a lot more data - biometric data, scientists who are saying, yeah, this is - you know, the coaches are probably acting in the best interests of the team. I think the science - you know, everyone's wearing flip bits now, and you're having a much greater appreciation for sleep. That information wasn't there five years ago, 10 years ago. And so I think the science has become more prevalent, and that's why the NBA is changing their tune.

CORNISH: This flies in the face of what I think we hear about pro athletes - the kind of grin-and-bear-it, tough-it-out attitude. And is it something that's spreading to other pro sports leagues, or is the NBA unusual?

HABERSTROH: Yeah, NBA - it's a little more superstar-centric. And so so much rides on the health of LeBron James, the health of Kevin Durant that I think people are a lot more empathetic and can see, you know, the grind that LeBron James goes through. But on a Thursday night football - NFL - it's really bad football. The ratings are down. The NFL is trying to look at - OK, maybe we should just play once a week, Sunday to Sunday, rather than asking these guys to come back three days earlier and play on a Thursday. Rest and recovery has very real effects on these players and the quality of the games. And so if you want to see great basketball, maybe we need to rethink this if we want optimal player performance.

CORNISH: Tom Haberstroh is an NBA analyst for ESPN. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HABERSTROH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.