- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Not even a full month has passed since LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat to win the NBA title. So much for the offseason.

With the NBA and the players’ union finalizing a Dec. 22 start date for the 2020-21 season late Monday, the league is just six weeks away from getting back on the court, a remarkably short turnaround for the teams that spent months inside the NBA’s bubble near Orlando — and a particularly short breather for the two title contenders, the Lakers and the Heat.

To put that into perspective: There are eight teams that haven’t played a game since March, when the league temporarily froze action due to the pandemic.

Some teams are rested like never before. Others have aging stars, like James, who are already expected to sit out certain games in an accelerated season to preserve energy for the long haul.

The NBA hasn’t released its schedule yet, but it’s likely to be condensed. The league’s goal is to have its 2021-22 calendar return to a normal 82-game schedule, so for this season, teams will play just 72 regular-season games with the playoffs ending no later than when the Olympics begin in July.

“The show will go on, just don’t cry a river when stars sit out TV games,” tweeted Lakers veteran Jared Dudley. “Esp Top teams that played a longer full season.”

“To have that quick of a restart, I wouldn’t expect to see (James) there,” Lakers guard Danny Green said on The Ringer’s NBA podcast. “I wouldn’t expect to see him probably for the first month of the season. He’ll probably be working out with us … but I just don’t expect guys to want to be there, or show up willingly.”

It’s not just James who could sit out, though it should be noted the four-time MVP hasn’t said anything about missing games. In today’s NBA, stars like the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have their minutes carefully managed in order to limit exposure. Leonard, famously, didn’t play in back-to-back games last season.

There were a number of high-profile stars — Leonard and Antetokounmpo included — whose teams played deep into the playoffs. Leonard and Antetokoumpo each made the second round, as did Houston’s James Harden and Russell Westbrook. James’ co-star, Anthony Davis, also has a lengthy injury history, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him rested on occasion, either.

Sitting stars — “load management” in NBA parlance — has become a problem for the NBA in recent years. Teams were resting players in marquee prime-time matchups on national networks — leading the league to implement a rule that would issue $100,000 fines to teams sitting healthy players in nationally televised games. The Clippers were fined $50,000 last season for sitting a healthy Leonard.

Those issues will be magnified to start next season. With the league’s ratings already struggling, it would be further damaging for big-name stars to be missing from marquee games — especially if those absences were on Christmas.

The NBA has made a tradition of scheduling its biggest games on the holiday, often with a Finals rematch in an early afternoon slot on ABC. In fact, the league pushed for a December start so they could still have that Christmas showcase — multiple reports indicated that the league projected a $500 million loss by starting the season a month later.

So imagine what would happen if the Lakers were matched against the Clippers on Christmas — like they were last year — and neither James nor Leonard suited up. It’s a nightmare scenario for the NBA, one they’re desperate to avoid.

Of course, not every game will be affected by load management — and not every star needs to be load managed.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler has openly resisted the idea of sitting games while healthy. Golden State’s Steph Curry is finally healthy after playing just five games last season before breaking his hand. So too is Washington’s John Wall, who hasn’t played a game in nearly two years because of multiple injuries.

But the return of the season is fast approaching. And it’s fair to wonder if fans will see the sport’s biggest names in suits rather than suited up.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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