LOS ANGELES — Sunday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, fans got to see LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love play (and score 101 points between them in a win).
Saturday night all three of them were out against the Clippers in a nationally televised game.
That rekindled a debate that has flared up all season and took on extra heat just a week before when Steve Kerr rested his four best Warriors players in a nationally televised game on Saturday night. Fans were pissed, you can be sure some suits at ABC/Disney were upset, and the league office called up the Cavaliers to complain.
Sunday, the Cavaliers to a man said that the rest mattered and they made the right call.
“It’s stupid,” coach Tyronn Lue said of the controversy, emphasizing he wasn’t going to play two guys coming off injuries in a back-to-back. “Because Kyrie didn’t come back the game before because of knee soreness, Kevin just had his first game back and he needed two games between these games. But whatever. It’s stupid.”
Elite teams resting key players, particularly on road games, is a growing pattern in the NBA — and with good reason. Studies have shown that players perform much better on the court when rested, and also they are 3.5 times more likely to be injured in the second game of a back-to-back (when muscle fatigue sets in). Coaches like Lue are paid to put their teams in position to win a title, and rest helps that cause.
But it does create problems for an entertainment product when the best players are not performing. Fans pay a lot of money to see LeBron or Curry the one time they come to town. Also, broadcast partners just signed a new deal that backs up the Brinks truck to the NBA, and then they are handed an inferior product to show.
“It sucks,” LeBron admitted Sunday, noting he can see that dilemma. “There are some times guys have to rest, and some guys need rest. It’s a long, strenuous season, and the NBA does the best it can putting the schedule together but you’re going to have back-to-backs, and you’re going to have certain games where certain things fall on certain nights.
“But coach’s job is to figure out a way to get a team to compete for a championship, and not compete for a game. And it sucks at certain times because you only play in certain cities once, or you only play certain teams once on their home floor. Me personally, I want to play in every game, I wanted to play last night but my coach said he felt it was best I didn’t play last night so I didn’t and I’m going to go with my coach.”
As for the concerns of broadcast partners, they make a lot of their value back come the playoffs, when guys are not rested.
“I’ve been part of six straight Finals, and every season the Finals is bigger and bigger and better and better, and more people are tuning in. So I don’t see a problem with people watching,” LeBron said.
While players often take the brunt of the criticisms — as with Karl Malone’s comments over the weekend — they rarely ask out. This is almost always a decision by management (the GM, team trainers, and the coach) and the players are informed they are sitting.
The NBA is going to start a week earlier next year, in hopes of stretching out the schedule and getting players a little more rest and have fewer back-to-backs.
“I can’t stress enough how important rest is, man,” Irving said. “You’ve got guys who have come before us and played 82 games and they have their opinions. We’re just in a different time now, a different way of taking care of your body and understanding what the goal is at the end of the season. It’s in the forefront of our minds — we’re playing for a championship run, a playoff run. We all want to play, I want to be a part of that as much as possible, but when our coaching staff and medical staff rests us I’m not opposed to it. I know fans all across the league want to see us at our best and they got to see a show tonight (against the Lakers). I would have loved go against the Clippers and go against a veteran team like that, but I have to respect the coach’s wishes.”
That said, Irving gets why fans are ticked. Like most around the league he’d like to reduce the games he is rested, but the answers are not easy to come by. That said, it all starts with the schedule — if the NBA wants to promote Saturday games like they are playoff games, then they need to schedule them like they’re playoff games with rest on either side for teams.
“I’m 100 percent with (fans concerns),” Irving said. “Hopefully we can spread (the schedule) out a little bit more and get guys a little bit more rest. When you go from West Coast to East Coast, and this is our sixth game in eight days — I don’t think anyone realized that — and we’re not hear to complain about it, but honestly playing basketball for six games in eight days is a lot.”