In the era of load management the ability to consistently produce greatness is now undervalued. The Athletic recently ranked the top 125 players in the NBA going into this coming season and in the Tier 1A, all 3 players missed at least 11 games last season.
Giannis Antetoukounmpo led the top tier with 61 games played, but Lebron James and Kevin Durant only played a total of 80 games between them. In fact even among Tier 1B, the durability issues continue other than Nikola Jokic. James Harden was an absolute iron man prior to last season but he played only 45 games in 2020-21. Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the most load managed star in league history and is not expected to play this regular season. Stephen Curry missed essentially all of 2019-20.
It feels wrong to include Lebron in any discussion of players playing less, because he is quite possibly the most durable player in NBA history. He needs to play 1313 minutes this season to tie Dirk Nowitzki for third all time in regular season minutes played. He is already the runaway leader in playoff minutes played. He will likely pass Karl Malone for second on the total number of minutes played including both playoffs and regular season minutes before this season is over behind only Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The NBA went to an 82 game schedule in the 1967-1968 season. Over the next 50 years, the NBA awarded most valuable player each season and only two players won the award while missing at least 10 games or playing in less than 90 percent of their teams games. Bill Walton won the award in 1977-78 while playing only 58 games. Allen Iverson won the award in 2000-01 while playing in 71 games, but he played 42 minutes per game which meant he had the same minutes load as a player who played a few more games.
Then over the last four seasons, three of the four award winners have missed exactly 10 games and played in less than 90 percent of their team games. James Harden in 2017-18 and Giannis in 2018-2019 both played exactly 72 of 82 games which was 87.8 percent of the teams games. In 2019-20, Giannis played 63 of 73 games which was 86.3 percent of the team games.
Jokic reversed the trend last season, playing in all 72 of his teams games en route to winning his most valuable player award. He has become the exception, rather than the rule. He was the 32nd of the 54 award winners since the 67-68 to miss 1 or fewer games while winning the award.
Why does this matter? The league has changed. Teams now understand that having a healthy superstar heading into the playoffs is more valuable than grinding out a couple of extra wins by running their superstar into the dust. The teams are RIGHT! Using the Mavericks as an example, it is more important that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are healthy for the playoffs then the Mavericks potentially being one of two seeds higher.
The problem is that this lack of durability is not factored in when comparing players of the past. Hyperbole is par for the course in an internet journalism age but Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman stated that Anthony Davis was the second best power forward ever in 2018. This was before Davis won the title as Lebron’s sidekick in 2020. During Dirk Nowitzki’s first 9 season, he played 117 more games than Davis has played in his first 9.
There is nothing wrong with teams valuing health. But it is unfair to past players or current players who actually play all the time to not recognize that there is a difference in showing up and dominating when everything is right and showing up and dominating every night.
By no means should we complain about prioritizing players health. But the next time someone tells you that a player who plays 60-65 games a season is better than a superstar of the past, consider how dominant that player of the past might have been if they chose to rest for the 10-20 percent of games they felt the worst for. No matter how great a player is, they cannot help you win games when they aren’t playing.