For the 2nd consecutive Saturday, ESPN’s NBA presentation did not meet viewer or fan expectation. The reason? The increasingly common tactic of resting star players in order to avoid any potential injury or just to brush off any fatigue. It’s a practice that is universally hated by just about everyone. When the Cavaliers rested their star trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love against the Clippers this past Saturday, ESPN color commentators Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson spent what felt like the entire game scorning the Cavaliers for giving their stars the night off, at one point calling it “a prosecutable offense.” Granted it was a genuinely boring game to watch and it resulted in a 30-point Clippers win, but still, it was just made worse by the fact there was nothing else to talk about.
Just a week prior, the Spurs and Warriors played on ESPN and there was a lot of hype around the game because both those teams were fighting for that coveted top seed in the Western Conference and everyone was ready to see Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge battle it out with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. But of course, that didn’t happen. With the exception of Aldridge, who was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia a few days before the game, all those players plus Andre Igoudala got the night off. So instead of a star-studded battle for the top spot in the standings, we got to see what was essentially a D-league game. The Spurs won in another blowout, which does say something about the severe lack of depth Golden State has coming off their bench, but that’s for another day.
The concept of resting players is a relatively new one. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used to do it just about every season for the last handful of years or so and it was actually praised by many. To be fair though, many people were more understanding of it because those Spurs teams included Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, and Tony Parker, who were and still are old as dirt, and the grind of an 82-game regular season would leave one to believe that those players in the mid-late 30’s would eventually run out of gas when it came time for the playoffs if they didn’t have a day off now and again. And at least as far as I can tell, it paid off because every year San Antonio was either winning a title or in contention for one. How much of an impact does the rest actually have? I don’t know, I’m not a doctor. But keep in mind, if Gregg Popovich thinks something is a good idea, it usually is.
But the issue here isn’t whether the NBA’s old man population needs a break. LeBron James is 32, which means he is getting older and may even be past his prime at this point but really probably doesn’t need to rest. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are both 29 and they don’t need to rest. Kawhi Leonard is 26 and is spry enough to play all 82 games and so are LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love.
So why are all these players sitting out down the stretch? It’s simple really. Coaches and players want to be as fresh as possible going into the postseason. Remember when Golden State ran their starters ragged last year to get to 73 wins and then slowly limped through the playoffs? Well, that’s kinda what teams are afraid of. Because while yes, the Warriors did make their 2nd consecutive finals appearance, Steph Curry just wasn’t himself at any point in those playoffs and his knee was a huge reason why. Maybe a little rest down the stretch of the regular season would have helped, maybe not. But it is worth noting that Curry skipped out on the Olympics this past summer to try and rehab that knee.
My point is, if there’s a competitive advantage that a coach in this league can get, they are going to take it. The hack-a-Shaq strategy is the same thing. Fans hate it and seeing Andre Drummond brick two free throws literally every time his team gets the ball is hardly watchable. However, whether we like it or not, it is an effective strategy. The same goes for resting players. Clearly, coaches are convinced that conceding a game or two in the regular season isn’t as important as having healthy, well rested starters for the playoffs and I can’t say I blame them.
While the games are really disappointing to watch on TV when players are resting, you really have to feel for the fans who actually buy tickets to those games in advance and instead of seeing LeBron come up with one of his patented chasedown swats from behind, they get to see Richard Jefferson instead. As a fan, I would feel justifiably cheated by that. The strategy most coaches use to determine just when they should rest their stars usually depends. Typically, it’s almost always a road game and either the second night of a back-to-back or the end of a long roadtrip. So if you go to a Celtics game in Boston, chances are Isaiah Thomas isn’t going to rest, mostly because no one wants to anger their own home crowd. But if it’s toward the end of the season and the Celtics are playing a game in Denver after playing in Phoenix the night before, don’t make any guarantees you’ll see Thomas in uniform.
Then there are the other teams who “shut players down” which is just a different way of saying they’re tanking for draft position. Phoenix already did that this year when they shut down Eric Bledsoe for the rest of the year. Somehow, this angers me more than teams resting their stars for health reasons. But like I said, if a coach thinks he can get an advantage, he’s going to take it. In an ideal world, everyone plays all 82 games and whatever happens, happens. But that’s not how the NBA is anymore. There is more research, more analytics, and just more nuance involved in general. I know all these players from the 80’s and 90’s are sitting back on their couch losing their mind saying “I played 82 games and I didn’t need to rest. They shouldn’t need to rest.” Which is true, but at the same time, the game has evolved so much since then. That is the equivalent to someone from the 1940’s complaining about all these athletes drinking Gatorade when “back in their day” all they had was a Dixie cup of water. Yeah, water is fine and all, but Gatorade was specifically designed to help the hydration and recovery of an athlete. There was more research. It’s the same with resting players.
I don’t know for sure how effective this whole rest idea is. What I do know, however, is that players are more susceptible to injury and fatigue after excessive traveling and playing multiple games in a short amount of time. We will probably see a few more teams rest their stars before the regular season ends. Maybe the answer to all this is shortening the regular season, which has been talked about every once in a while. Personally, I like the idea of just extending the NBA calendar and eliminating back-to-back games altogether. Whatever the answer is, if there even is one, this is going to keep happening because NBA coaches don’t give a damn whether the game is entertaining to watch. They are paid to win games whether in the long term or short term and they are going to use every avenue they can to do so and like it or not, that means giving their stars the night off every once in a while.