Let me start by saying I’m a man of science. Climate change is real and corporations should be held responsible. Vaccinate your children (and pets!) Mayo helps achieve great browning for your grilled cheeses. I’m not anti-analytics. And I’m not even anti-load management. And yet for the life of me, I could not understand why in the world in the middle of the fourth quarter of Zion Williamson’s debut NBA game, after a stretch in which he scored 17 points in 188 seconds, the Pelicans—who are chasing a playoff spot!—had to plant him on the bench for the rest of the night. This is an NBA crisis!
In my admittedly very simple and shockingly underdeveloped mind, you’re either ready to play in an NBA game or not. What’s the point of practicing, doing all your off-court work and training, and rehabbing if your team won’t actually, you know, let you play when you get back? What would have happened if Zion had played an extra five minutes last night? Would his knees have spontaneously turned to dust? I’m sure someone has interviewed someone who has researched the number of minutes NBA players should actually be playing when they come back from an injury and blah blah blah. But that means nothing to me in an individual game! In regard to the Pelicans and Zion, if he’s healthy enough to be on the court, why can’t he keep playing once he actually starts playing well?! What is the magical threshold he has to hit before he can play his normal amount of minutes?
I’ve tried to be reasonable. Players, coaches, general managers, and the league all have competing and worthwhile agendas when it comes to how to handle this era in which it’s basically an accepted fact that the regular season is more or less a tune-up for the very best players and teams, and long-term goals seemingly rule everything. I get all of that. But when I’m watching a game, and the player I’ve been waiting months to see finally starts doing some cool-as-hell basketball stuff has to be taken out because he hit an arbitrary minutes limit even though he wants to keep playing, haven’t we lost the plot a little bit?
Part of me really wants to lean in and demand the NBA and NBPA co-fund a study on minutes played or something like that and release some kind of public finding that explains why load management/return from injury works the way it does or whatever. I don’t know. The status quo is just frustrating as an NBA fan. What happened with Zion wasn’t even the case of a team pushing a player to do something he’s not interested in. Williamson wanted to keep playing last night, shouldn’t that have meant a little something? (This also wasn’t like Kevin Durant coming back from a calf strain in the Finals. Zion has been out for months and working up to his first game for a long time. He was far from rushed. He was, uh, slowed.)
I’m not completely oblivious to what’s happening here. I want Zion to have a long and healthy career. And an even worse outcome for the Pelicans would have been Williamson pushing himself and putting more stress on his knees than they were ready for in his literal first game. (And I also refuse to have a conversation about why the NBA ratings are down. I don’t really care. The league is going to exist no matter what because it’s a multi-billion enterprise, and TV ratings aren’t the only indicator for health, for better or worse.)
If I really have to boil down this incoherent screed into something intelligible (because our society is obsessed with neat conclusions) it’s this: Sometimes short-term decisions are okay! I don’t know when exactly the NBA flipped into a sport that became about maximizing your championship odds over the longest window of time possible, but it’s had an appreciable impact on what we see now. It’s not just Zion, which was probably the right call at the end of the day. It’s about Chris Paul. It’s about resets. It’s about Processes.
I don’t know how the league ultimately injects short-term urgency on a game-to-game basis. Obviously Adam Silver is thinking hard about it. Because it’s not just about how teams go about winning a title in any given year. It’s how entire plans are built around maximum flexibility at all times. There’s a logical extreme in which every top player plays the least number of minutes possible to ensure a playoff berth while preserving their body for that year and also the next five years that seems ridiculous but also not entirely implausible.
What happened with Zion wasn’t novel or a tipping point. Ultimately, most of the actors in the NBA outside of the league office have conditioned us to believe that the long-term outlook for any given team is seemingly more important than the immediate one (or at worst equally important.) Watching Zion get pulled in an important game for a team in need of excitement was perhaps the starkest reminder this season of what that mentality can actually mean for the NBA product. Williamson isn’t the perfect example of the league’s urgency problem. But at least this somewhat agitated fan would be happier if more teams cared about the task at hand as opposed to the one much further away.