Despite complaints, NBA teams gain from resting stars

Stephen Curry (far left) and Draymond Green at the sidelines during Golden State's road loss to San Antonio earlier this month. Many coaches are juggling their line-ups to keep the big names fresh for the play-offs.
Stephen Curry (far left) and Draymond Green at the sidelines during Golden State's road loss to San Antonio earlier this month. Many coaches are juggling their line-ups to keep the big names fresh for the play-offs.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • 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 has had something to say about whether they think rest days for key players is good or bad, right or wrong.

Leading the way is NBA commissioner Adam Silver, 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 popularised 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.

SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE

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?

GREGG POPOVICH, San Antonio Spurs head coach, on resting his star players during the regular NBA season.

His approach has been credited with helping the Spurs keep their ageing players from falling apart.

"We have definitely added years to people," said Popovich, whose side defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 97-90 on Thursday to move within two games of NBA-leading Golden State. "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?"

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.

That did not keep the grumbling from getting louder after two recent games in which the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Warriors sat out all of their star players.

In the Warriors' case, 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.

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 per cent) in the six games before missing the Spurs game. Since then, he has regained his form, going 23 for 49 from three-point range (46.9 per cent) while helping his team to five straight wins.

The Cavaliers also did a mass benching, with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and James sitting out a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But Irving and Love were working through injuries, so James was the only healthy scratch.

James is aware of how his absence tends to become an issue. 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 play-offs. That has not 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 said he 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 played in the NBA Finals in the last six seasons.

Harden may see no point in rest, but he has appeared in only 34 play-off games over the last four seasons, compared with 84 for James.

And the 27-year-old guard may start to feel differently when his 22,955 combined minutes in the regular season and play-offs get closer to James' total of 49,227.

Indeed, at the age of 32, James is already fourth in career play-off minutes, with nearly 1,000 more than Bill Russell or Michael Jordan had in their careers.

Another deep run this season would push him past Kobe Bryant and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, leaving only Duncan ahead of him, in terms of play-off workload.

It is likely no coincidence that the resting trend started with Duncan, who played 9,370 play-off minutes in his career (the equivalent of nearly four regular seasons).

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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'Despite complaints, NBA teams gain from resting stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe