NBA’s 65-Game Rule Causing Controversy

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New this year in the NBA is a rule that states players must play 65 games, and at least 20 minutes in all 65 of those games, to be eligible to win postseason awards.

Prompting the rule was the growing trend of “load management.” Players, and many marquee players, were sitting out games in the regular season so they would be more rested for when the playoffs began. The league’s regular season product was being diminished by the shrinking number of superstar vs. superstar matchups, and they wanted to do something about it.

As with all changes to rules, there are unintended consequences. Last week, the Philadelphia 76ers were at the Denver Nuggets. NBA online sportsbooks currently have the Nuggets as the betting favorite to win the Western Conference, and the Sixers are the third betting favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

It was a big game, between two of the best teams in the sport, and two of its brightest stars. But the matchup between Nikola Jokic, the NBA MVP in 2021 and 2022, and Joel Embiid, the 2023 NBA MVP, didn’t happen. Embiid participated in warmups before the game, but he didn’t play.

Embiid caught a lot of heat from the hot take brigade on talk radio and sports television. He was accused of ducking Jokic and trying to avoid playing the best players and teams so he could pad his stats. Embiid is currently leading the NBA in scoring with 35.3 points per game.

He played on Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors, but it was clear that his knee wasn’t fully healthy. For the night, Embiid was just 4-of-18 from the floor, and he got to the free throw line just twice. He ended up leaving the game for good when his left knee was landed on by another player.

The Pressure to Play

Embiid began the season as one of the favorites to win another MVP award, and he’s been having an MVP-worthy season. But because he can now miss only five more games and still be eligible to win the award, his odds have dropped. Bovada.lv currently has Jokic at -125 to win the award, while Embiid is all the way down at +2500. They were neck-and-neck just a week ago.

Warriors forward Draymond Green, who played against Embiid on Tuesday, is not a fan of the 65-game rule.

“You get Joel, who comes out there tonight, and he forces it. Now we’ve got one of our premier faces in this league, the MVP of our league, possibly hurt for an extended period of time because he’s forcing it.”

Indiana Pacers all-star point guard Tyrese Haliburton is also criticizing the rule, calling it “stupid.” He has missed 13 games this season because of injury, and he played less than 15 minutes in another game – the one in which he was hurt. That means he can only miss three more games before he will be ineligible for postseason awards. In Haliburton’s case, it’s being named to the All-NBA team that matters to him.

If he is named All-NBA, which would be a lock if not for the possibility of becoming ineligible, he gets an extra $40 million over the life of his current contract.

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving has already missed more than his allowed games, so he is ineligible for any awards. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, and Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler are also getting close to ineligibility.

The Science of Load Management

Former player and current NBA executive Joe Dumars says the league’s data does not support the frequent resting of players

“Before, it was a given conclusion that the data showed that you had to rest players a certain amount, and that justified them sitting out. We’ve gotten more data, and it just doesn’t show that resting, sitting guys out, correlates with lack of injuries or fatigue, or anything like that.”

When Embiid won the MVP a season ago, he played 66 regular season games. He’s never played in more than 68 games in one regular season. Jokic played in 74 and 72 games in his two recent MVP wins. 

The record for MVP awards is six, held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He averaged 79 games played in each of those six MVP seasons.

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