On Saturday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers elected to rest their Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The league responded almost immediately to the Cavaliers decision, calling GM David Griffin per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
As expected, they were not enthused with the benching, to which Griffin responded by stating that both Love and Irving were dealing with their own injuries, and not wanting to burden LeBron with carrying an entire team on a back-to-back, decided to give the three players the night off to recuperate.
The subject of resting players has been under much scrutiny in recent years, a trend that had been popularized by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. While having previously done so without repercussions, Popovich chose to rest his players ahead of a big matchup against the Miami Heat back in 2012, who at the time had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on their roster. This time around, the league was not so forgiving, fining the Spurs a substantial $250,000. It was the first time the NBA had taken a stance on this subject since fining the Lakers $25,000 for resting their players in the 1990 regular-season finale.
However, the fine hasn’t dissuaded other teams around the league from doing the same. In fact, we are seeing more teams adopt this approach, like the aforementioned Cavaliers, the Warriors and the Grizzlies, who all have rested their star players at various points during this season.
The consensus among NBA teams, and players of past and present is quite mixed. Of course, there are those who believe in the merit of resting players and thus are implementing that strategy within their teams. But there are also other coaches who don’t agree with it, like Pistons coach Stan van Gundy, who believes that morally, players have an obligation to play all 82 games if they’re healthy.
Hall of Famer Karl Malone has come out in recent days to criticize teams for resting their players, and though his comparison to service and emergency response workers is quite off-base, the message is clear.
Another point, as Clippers Coach Doc Rivers pointed out, is the implication on the fans, many of whom will buy tickets to see a marquee player (like LeBron) play, only to watch him sit on the bench, sipping coffee for 48 minutes.
On the other end of the spectrum, the argument for resting players is that is has been proven to be more beneficial towards the long-term health of the players, especially for teams like the Cavaliers and the Warriors, who have been to consecutive NBA finals. The long and grueling playoff runs for both teams surely has taken a toll on their players, and to stay competitive in the chase for Championships (as is any team’s goals), resting players is a necessity.
There is no rule that prohibits teams from resting players. Under the current league rules, teams are required to provide notice to the league office, their opponent, and the media immediately upon a determination that a player will not participate in a game due to rest, according the memo sent out by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (reported by ESPN).
Personally, I think the situation is more complicated than some individuals make it seem. It isn’t just as simple as saying that because players are being paid, that they have an obligation to play 82 games. It is the NBA’s obligation to try and get players to play 82 games, because it is beneficial towards the business of generating revenue. As for NBA teams, it is their main obligation to their franchises to try and win championships.
Proponents for resting players will likely argue the fact that teams would rather sit their players for certain games during the season as a preventative, and most importantly, a maintenance measure. That extra day off allows players to get treatment on nagging ailments, and the necessary rest after treatments to receive the full extent of the therapeutic measures.
The concept of playing every game is very old-school, embodied by players like Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. Both those players had illustrious careers, but both were only able to play for 12 years before injuries ended their careers. In comparison, LeBron is having a career year well into his 14th season, with no signs of slowing down.
We live in an era of immense technological advances. There are new and innovative ways of speeding up recovery, newer analytics available to help dictate decisions about a player’s health. To not utilize all these advances to the fullest extent would put any team at a disadvantage.
In the last decade of basketball, we have seen the rise of ACL and MCL tears. As we have come to learn, these injuries are not only career-threatening, but have further and more severe implications later on in life.
Perhaps it is the result of the increased pace we see now in the NBA compared to years past, but regardless, players now have taken heed of the warnings. A slight tweak in the knee may now be looked in a more serious light, and teams are willing to take the extra precautions to protect their star players from sustaining such career-threatening injuries.
Whether it be cryotherapy or sensory-depravation tanks (for example), the league and its players alike have taken the onus of exploring new types of therapeutic methods to help keep them in peak physical and mental condition.
However, there is a fine line between resting players recovering from injuries and resting players who are fully healthy. Much was made about the Warriors resting four of their starters last weekend, as all four players were completely healthy. Coach Steve Kerr cited the team’s taxing road trip, which spanned eight cities in thirteen nights, as the reason why he decided to sit his starters for the evening.
This is where the heart of the issue lies. Like I said, teams are not obligated to play their players every night. But when a team decides to rest all their star players, it really diminishes the quality of basketball for the fans, who expect a certain standard of competition when they pay for their tickets.
Isiah Thomas made a great point the other night while sitting on the Player’s Only panel of NBA on TNT. The fans are the ones sustaining the business of the NBA. They’re the reason why the NBA landed such a lucrative TV deal, so when players sign their equally lucrative contracts, in a sense they have some responsibility to uphold to the fans.
When players sit out games for rest, they still continue to collect their paychecks, but the fans ultimately aren’t getting the product they paid for. Undeniably, resting players solely affects the fans, and the league must look out for the best interest of the fans in these situations.
There is no easy solution to this problem. I understand both sides of the arguments, and I find myself agreeing with the points presented by both sides. However, my stance on resting players is this: teams do not have an obligation to play their players for the full 82-game season, if it is in the best interest of their team.
While I agree to a certain extent that players should be playing if they’re healthy, teams resting their players are simply exercising their right to do so, just as teams who play their injured players instead of resting them; it really all depends on each team’s situation.
Take for example Hassan Whiteside, who lacerated his right hand this past Tuesday against the Suns, and was on the court Thursday night against the Raptors with 13 stitches in his right hand. The Heat are amidst a three-team battle for the 8th and final playoff spot, and losing their star center for even one game could prove to be costly.
On the other hand, the Warriors currently hold the best record in the NBA, and are in no danger of dropping any lower in the seeding than 2nd. There is no incentive for them to continue playing their stars in games that don’t have any impact towards their final standings.
Adam Silver has said that the league will be considering this issue in the upcoming owner’s meeting in April. But until there is a rule set in place that either prohibits or punishes resting, teams have every right to do what they want with their players.
I’ll admit, even while writing this piece I had a difficult time siding with the argument for resting players. Being a fan of the game and perhaps an even bigger competitor myself, I can speak for the masses that no one wants to see subpar competition in NBA. But you have to look at things objectively, and right now, as long as NBA teams follow the guidelines the league has mandated on resting players, there is very little the league can do to satisfy the fans.
TNT’s David Aldridge wrote about a potential strategy that could satisfy both parties, but even then it would seem that fans would be getting the short end of the stick. Ultimately, the teams will have final say on how to handle their players; there is only so much the league can mandate and restrict.
Personally, I don’t think there will ever be an equal system in place that would satisfy both NBA teams and their fans. Silver has mentioned that the league would experiment with reducing preseason games, allowing the season to start 1-2 weeks earlier and thus reduce the number of back-to-backs in the scheduling.
However, unless there is a rule set in place that either prohibits or penalizes resting players, there will never be an incentive against resting. Perhaps the league will one day move in that direction, maybe sooner than we think (based on the comments from Commissioner Silver).
Until that time comes, I can’t see why teams would choose to play their stars, as opposed to giving them rest that they would benefit from. It truly is an unfortunate situation for the fans, but consider this: NBA players (at the end of the day) are employees, like many of us. From time-to-time, we will call in our sick days if we aren’t feeling that great, maybe due to fatigue from a particularly hectic work week. Sometimes, that extra day is all we need to get over whatever is bothering us. We still get paid on those sick days, and we return to work the next day ready to tackle on the tasks at hand. In a way, it is the equivalent of an NBA player choosing to rest.