By Benjamin Hoffman | The New York Times News Service
WITH only five players to a side in the National Basketball Association (NBA), people tend to notice when the biggest stars go missing. So what happens when, in the span of a few weeks, a number of top players sit out games, despite being fit?
A healthy dose of controversy ensues. It seems that everyone involved in the league, past or present, has had something to say about whether they think rest days for key players is good or bad, or right or wrong. And leading the way is Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner, who sent a memo to the league’s owners calling the decision to sit out players a significant problem and warning of the potential for “significant penalties.”
What makes this a tricky situation is that the extra rest seems to help the players involved but create bad optics for a league that sells itself on its superstars.
The strategy of resting top players was popularized by coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, who would regularly hold out Tim Duncan and other top players during particularly strenuous parts of the schedule. Popovich’s approach has been credited with helping the Spurs keep their aging players from falling apart.
“We have definitely added years to people,” Popovich told reporters this week. “So it’s a trade-off. You want to see this guy in this one game? Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career?”
A closer look at this season shows that despite the recent controversy, the problem may not be as widespread as it seems. For instance, if you leave out Kevin Durant, who is hurt, the league’s five most valuable players at the moment—LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard—have rested for a total of just seven games this season, with five of them going to James.
But that didn’t keep the grumbling from getting louder after two recent games in which the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors sat out all of their star players.
In the Warriors’ case, they were trying to pull out of their worst funk of the Steve Kerr era, while also grappling with Durant’s extended injury absence. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Curry all sat out a road game against the Spurs, and the Warriors proceeded to lose for the fifth time in seven games. (They lost just nine times all of last season.) Still, the strategy of resting everyone at once seemed to work.
Curry, in particular, had been playing poorly, going 0 for 11 from three-point range in a win over Philadelphia on Feb. 27, and then going 18 for 65 (27.7 percent) in the six games before his sitting out against the Spurs. But since that rest day against San Antonio, Curry has regained his form, going 23 for 49 from 3-point range (46.9 percent) while helping his team to five consecutive victories and re-establishing Golden State’s place at the top of the Western Conference standings.
The Cavaliers also did a mass benching, with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and James sitting out in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But both Irving and Love were working through injuries, so only James was truly a healthy scratch.
James is keenly aware of how his absence tends to become an issue, and he has experimented with various forms of rest over the last few seasons, including an unexpected and controversial two-week absence in the 2014-2015 season to let a lingering knee injury heal. This season, he said, the five rest days were a result of coach Tyronn Lue’s wanting to keep him fresh for the team’s inevitable deep run in the playoffs.
That hasn’t kept others from giving him, and Curry, a hard time for taking a break. Among the critics is Harden, who has played in all of Houston’s games this season and has called himself a “hooper” who will “rest when I’m done.”
But the criticism of James—whose rest days have all involved back-to-back games—ignores the realities of his unusual situation as a player who has played in the NBA finals in each of the last six seasons. Harden may see no point in rest, but he has appeared in 34 playoff games over the last four seasons, compared with 84 for James. And Harden, who is 27, may start to feel differently about rest days when his 22,955 combined minutes in the regular season and playoffs get closer to James’ total of 49,227.
Indeed, at the age of 32, James is already fourth in career playoff minutes, with nearly 1,000 more than Bill Russell or Michael Jordan had in their careers. Another deep postseason run this season would push him past Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leaving only Duncan ahead of him, in terms of playoff workload.
It is likely no coincidence that the resting trend started with Duncan, who played 9,370 playoff minutes in his career (the equivalent of nearly four regular seasons). And it has continued with James, who will almost assuredly pass Duncan’s mark in the next few seasons.
To some extent, the issue of rest days could diminish on its own next season, which will start a week earlier, spreading out each team’s 82 regular-season games.
But even so, as James continues to age, fans hoping to see him play in person should be mindful of the Cavaliers’ back-to-back games. He may continue to sit in those situations, regardless of what anyone says.