The Spurs and Warriors kicked off the NBA’s yearly resting controversy over the weekend, when both teams held out their biggest stars in what was supposed to be one of the best national TV games of the regular season. The Spurs sat Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, though unlike past times, both players are dealing with potentially serious injuries and people had no reason to be angry with Gregg Popovich. The Warriors, already without Kevin Durant, rested Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green for the game, essentially throwing their scout team on the court.
Is this fair for the consumer? It’s certainly not ideal, but teams honestly should not care even a little bit about the fans when it comes to resting players for the greater good.
Saturday’s game was really a bit of a perfect storm when it came to the resting players issue, a talking point that occurs every NBA season, but usually earlier than March. The Spurs, already old, were dealing with legitimate injury problems. The Warriors, who were completing a particularly hellacious road trip, had no incentive to play their tired stars once the Spurs couldn’t play theirs, and there was certainly a level of gamesmanship going on since both teams could meet in the conference finals.
Ultimately, this is an issue for the NBA to figure out, and it doesn’t need to be incumbent on teams to make sure every Saturday primetime game is treated like a Game 7. Teams certainly aren’t helping their case by charging higher ticket prices for these types of matchups, though savvy fans should at least try to suss out when stars may be sitting—stay away from back-to-backs!
What can the league do? Adam Silver has already been a little more charitable than his predecessor David Stern when it comes to letting coaches sit stars. Stern famously fined Popovich for holding out his best players against the Heat in 2012—a game the Heat would have lost if not for a dramatic Ray Allen three late in the fourth (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). The league is taking the right step by starting the regular season earlier this fall, reducing the number of back-to-backs and increasing rest for players over All-Star Weekend.
The nuclear option would be to cut down on the number of games in the regular season, which seems like an easy solution, except for all the revenue that would be forfeited by the owners all the way down to the people who sell parking around your local arena.
Scheduling should definitely become a bigger factor moving forward. If the league doesn’t want its national games to be rendered unwatchable, then it has to make sure teams aren’t playing on a back-to-back, or a third game in four nights, or their eighth game in eight cities over only 13 days. That’s certainly easier said than done—especially when your best team is in the deep West—but if the NBA cares about protecting its product, then those are the lengths it will have to go to ensure players are properly rested for important games.
And this should go without saying, but please don’t listen to anyone who points to the past when arguing why players should be participating in all 82 games. Why should coaches ignore overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of resting players just because Michael Jordan played all 82 games at age 39? We’ll leave the frightening social and political parallels for another time, but coaches have an abundance of information at their fingertips screaming why it’s important to rest their players. (If someone still keeps bringing up the past, ask them why they don’t smoke a pack of cigarettes every day.)
I really do feel for fans who miss their only opportunity to watch their favorite players in person. Not everyone is plugged into the NBA, and the casual consumer should not be expected to understand the nuances of resting players in favor of the playoffs. If the league cares about keeping all those people happy, then it needs to take it upon itself to find creative solutions to protect its most important games. But don’t blame coaches for doing what is best for their teams.