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A new rule is changing the NBA's awards race; it could also cost players millions

A new rule is changing the NBA's awards race; it could also cost players millions




TWO WEEKS AGO, Joel Embiid returned from a four-game absence caused by a sore ankle, an injury that kept him out of the Philadelphia 76ers' marquee Christmas Day matchup with the Miami Heat.


After that Jan. 2 win against the Chicago Bulls, during which Embiid recorded a 31-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, the NBA's reigning MVP was asked about the new league policy that could end his repeat run before a single award vote is cast.


The league's rule, put in place in early October as part of the push to curb load management, states players will be all but certain to be ineligible for major individual awards -- Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA honors among them -- if they fail to play in at least 65 games.


"I just wanna play as many games as possible," Embiid, the reigning MVP and front-runner for this season's award, said after Philadelphia's win against Chicago. "It's unfortunate that I missed the last four games, but you can't control it.


"At the beginning of the season ... my goal was to try to play 82 games."


Three days later, Embiid tweaked his left knee in Philadelphia's loss to the New York Knicks. He missed the next three games before stepping back on the court Monday with another dominating performance in a win against the Houston Rockets. Embiid and the Sixers host the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, his chief rival for MVP in each of the past three seasons, on Tuesday.


After sitting out those seven games, Embiid has missed 10 this season and can miss only seven of the 76ers' remaining 44 contests to stay eligible.


And as the season approaches its midway point, Philly's big man isn't the only superstar who could be impacted for postseason honors and the millions in financial incentives that follow.


THE 65-GAME RULE accounts for just under 80% of the 82-game regular season. Along with the in-season tournament and the larger player participation policy, it was designed to put more emphasis on the regular season and to encourage teams to play their elite players more often.


"There's no magic to the 65, but we're trying to take into account games, of course, that are going to be missed because there are injuries, and maybe occasionally even it's necessary for a player to rest," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at his NBA Finals news conference in Denver last spring. "This is something we negotiated with the players' association. Everybody has an interest in the league putting its best foot forward in a highly competitive regular season."


Impact of the NBA's new 65-game rule


Starting in the 2023-24 season, in order to be eligible for MVP, an All-NBA team, Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Defensive team or Most Improved Player honors, a player must satisfy at least one of the following two criteria:


1. The player played in at least 65 regular-season games


2. The player played in at least 62 regular-season games, suffered a season-ending injury and played in at least 85% of the regular-season games played by his team prior to the player suffering said injury


A player will be considered to have played in a regular-season game if he played at least 20 minutes of such game -- though he can count two games in which he fell short of 20 minutes toward the 65 if he played at least 15 minutes.



Last week, as part of a league-commissioned report that argues load management does not reduce the long-term risk of injuries to players, the NBA laid out the increase in missed games among star players over the past 40 years.


In the 1980s, star players -- defined in the report as players who were All-Star or All-NBA selections in that current season or the prior two -- missed an average of 10.4 games per season. In the 1990s, that number was 10.6 games.


It has steadily increased since: 13.9 games in the 2000s; 17.5 games in the 2010s; 23.9 games missed per season this decade.


"Of course there's significant business impact there and fan impact, as well as the competitive integrity piece [of missed games]," Evan Wasch, the NBA's executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told ESPN. "So we talked about how we could potentially reverse that trend."


OF THE PLAYERS selected to the three All-NBA teams last season, five of them -- Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (63 games played), Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (56), Miami forward Jimmy Butler (64), Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (55) and then-Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (58) -- would not have been eligible for the honors under the new rule.


The rule, therefore, would have also impacted the financial futures of several elite players.


Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, for example, finished ninth in All-NBA voting among forwards, behind a list that included Antetokounmpo, Butler and James. If the 65-game rule were in place last season, Siakam would have been one of the six forwards to qualify. With it would have come eligibility for a supermax contract extension this past summer. (Siakam will head into the offseason without a new deal, and his name has surfaced in trade reports ahead of the Feb. 8 deadline.)


Several more players could be impacted this season. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (14 games missed), Heat center Bam Adebayo (10 games) and Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (six games) would each be supermax eligible if they make All-NBA this season.


"Me, honestly, it doesn't affect how I think about basketball," Adebayo told ESPN. "I love to play basketball. I love the game. So, for me, I'm gonna play regardless.


"I think it's crazy that we have to have a rule that you have to play games, just because in my mind, I feel like everybody loves basketball the way I do. ...


"At the end of the day, if guys want to win awards, they're gonna play."


There are big stakes on these decisions. Adebayo and Fox could see a $93 million difference in their next contracts based on All-NBA voting. Both will be able to sign a three-year extension for $152 million with the Heat and Kings, respectively, if they don't make All-NBA for too many games missed. If they do, they are both eligible for four-year, $245 million supermax extensions.


Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton, one of the league's brightest young stars, is out multiple weeks with a hamstring injury and has already missed seven games this season. By the time he returns, he could have already missed more than 17 games, which would make him ineligible for awards. That would prevent him from getting the contract amount that comes with making an All-NBA team in a fourth NBA season: a difference of $41 million.


For his part, Adebayo said he isn't going to spend time worrying about what will happen over the second half of the season.


"[An injury] is what it is," Adebayo said. "You can't stop injuries from happening."


He then turned around and knocked on the wooden locker behind him.


"God forbid nobody gets hurt, but you can't [prevent] injury," he said. "I think it's crazy that we even have the rule. It's one of those things where you just accept the rule. ...


"I guess use your 17 games as wisely as possible."


FOR PLAYERS WHO fall short of the 65-game threshold, there are procedures in place to attempt to regain eligibility for awards.


The pathway to achieving that, however, is a narrow one.


Once a player has officially fallen short of being able to reach 65 games played, the rule states they'll have two days to file a grievance. An arbitration hearing between the player, team, league and players' union will follow.


To file a grievance, a player must have clear and convincing evidence that the team limited the minutes or games played by that player with the intention of depriving the player of eligibility for one or more awards.


There is also one injury-related clause: If players have a season-ending injury just before reaching the 65-game threshold, they could remain award eligible. That player would have to have played in at least 62 regular-season games, have suffered a season-ending injury and have played in at least 85% of his team's games before getting hurt.


There's also an "extraordinary circumstances" clause. However, league and players union sources do not expect injuries to suffice, as it essentially defeats the purpose of the rule.


"We've never seen a player who's played 40 games, for example, be recognized with [an award impacted by the rule]," Wasch said. "We have seen players kind of in the low- to mid- 50s [in games played] with extraordinary seasons get those recognitions.


"This is just memorializing what the competition committee, the players' association, the league, teams collectively thought reflected in aggregate season performance. ... And we understand that means that a player could fall short by a game, two, three.


"Then that recognition is gonna go to someone else who had, in theory, a greater aggregate contribution to his team by playing 65 or more games."


But while it could prevent him from claiming a second straight MVP award, Embiid said his goals are bigger than accolades -- and he won't jeopardize the chase for a championship to pursue individual awards.


"The goal is to be ready for the playoffs," Embiid told reporters after Monday's win against Houston. "If I can't meet the criteria of 65 games ... as long as I'm ready to be dominant in that time in April, that's all I care about."

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