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The NBA needs players to be healthy, but is against them resting

The DNP-rest debate exposes the NBA’s central paradox.

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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James scored 33 points against the Utah Jazz, and it was good. He also had 10 rebounds and six assists, and that was good as well.

Then The King realized that he had played 38 minutes, and this dismayed him. He was already playing more minutes per game this season than any NBA player not named Kyle Lowry. He could feel the accumulated aches and pains, and that was not good at all. The doctors, trainers, advisors, and his coach all agreed. The King rested two days later in a Saturday showdown against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The next night, he came out against the Los Angeles Lakers, played 37 minutes, and gave them buckets — 34 points, seven assists, and six rebounds. That, too, was good.

Yet people were upset that The King took a rest day. They bought tickets to see him play against the Clippers, and he let them down. He lied to them, they felt. Even those who planned to watch the game on national television felt that they had been cheated. The people were unhappy that the product that they paid for did not live up to their expectations, because James, as well as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, decided to take the day off.

James has missed six games this season — one for strep throat and five for rest. In his career, he has missed just a little more than 6 percent of his possible appearances.

The issue of resting players is nothing new. Gregg Popovich is infamous for the practice, which reached its apex when he sat Tim Duncan with a “DNP-Old” designation in 2012.

Uproar about players resting seems to be reaching a new high, however. The issue has become big enough that Adam Silver sent a memo to owners threatening significant penalties for teams that rest stars without notice.

Tyronn Lue called the whole debate “stupid”:

“Kyrie didn't come back the game before, knee soreness, Kevin [Love] just had his first game back, we needed two days in between each game. It's OK, though, whatever.”

Irving agreed, saying that regardless what fans and older may players may think of it, resting helps keep players healthy late in the season

“I can't stress enough how important rest is,” Irving said. “You've got veterans who have come before us who play 82 games that have their opinions and we're just in a different time now. The smart way of taking care of your body and understanding what the important goal is at the end of the season it's at the forefront of our minds. We're playing for a championship run, playoff run.”

Irving and the Cavaliers aren’t just being superstitious:

Teams like the Cavaliers and the Spurs, perennial title contenders, can afford to rest their best players to keep them in top shape for when they need to be at their best. The season is long, and the more they play, the more tired and at risk for injuries they become. The Cavaliers do not want a repeat of the 2015 NBA Finals, when Irving and Kevin Love missed due to injuries.

Rest is also critical for teams that aren’t in the championship conversation. Whatever the individual team goal is, it can only be achieved with healthy players. That is, unless the team is tanking, at which stage there’s not even a point in playing those players at all.

Rest is also vital for the NBA as a product. Athletes play at their best when they’re as close to 100 percent as possible. When they are playing well, the games are more competitive and fun.

Most of all, rest is a benefit to the players as human beings made up of the same weak flesh, muscles, and bones as the rest of us. Resting is done not just to keep athletes healthy, but to extend careers. Duncan played until he was 39, and James has also remained dominant for a long time.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Fans do deserve some sympathy. The NBA is a superstar-driven league, which is a big difference between it and other sports leagues in which resting players is not just an accepted practice, but demanded.

The inverse are team-driven sports like soccer and baseball in which fans place a premium on player health. They implored Manchester United’s manager, José Mourinho, to rest Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his top striker, because Ibrahimovic had played in nearly all of their games up to January. The same was asked for Paul Pogba before he was ruled out for three weeks with a hamstring injury. Arsène Wenger, manager of Arsenal, has been routinely criticized for overusing players.

In baseball, the sheer number of games leaves no option except to create a rotation. In these sports, the issue more often is that players don’t rest enough. Those sports also don’t seem to need players to drive interest in their games the way the NBA does. As the old soccer adage goes: Play for the team in the front and people will remember the name on the back.

The NBA has worked itself into a dead end. In those promo ads with Lil Jon, he isn’t just asking the audience to turn down for the season’s unmissable game, but also for LeBron James. The ad does not even mention the Cavaliers or Spurs by name.

People are paying to see certain players like James, and it is unfair when they are cheated out of that experience, especially when teams don’t announce that stars are resting until a few hours before the game. Fans feel like they’ve been bait-and-switched. Even Popovich agrees.

“We want to do the best we can because it is entertainment,” Popovich told reporters. “We love the basketball and that’s what we do. We’re all purists in that sense. But we know how the salaries are paid. We’ll get together a lot better than the Republicans and Democrats. And we even say things that aren’t nonsensical and ridiculous and delusional.”

It’s a players’ league that has a problem with players not playing. Unfortunately for Silver and the NBA, science and reason suggest that the teams and athletes are doing the smart thing.

The NBA has made efforts to lessen the number of back-to-backs and address the problem of poor sleep patterns, which are exacerbated by technology and the amount of travel in an NBA season. The most obvious solution is to shorten the season, but the profit loss would be untenable. Another solution would be to force the players to play, but that could make matters worse. It would diminish the product in another way, leading to lower-quality games, especially in the playoffs.

The third solution is to simply accept the practice of resting players and deal with the consequences.

As Popovich stated, there has be a compromise. The NBA can’t change the way that it markets its product — it’s far too late for that. But it also has to accept, just as fans do, that players resting is in no way malicious or weak. It’s smart, it’s sensible, and it's ultimately beneficial for everyone.

Yet the fans have to watch something. They did not pay to see Tristan Thompson or Kyle Anderson; they came for LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.

Compromise is going to take a lot of work. And whatever agreement is reached won't be perfect. It can't be with such a great number of games, travel, and stress placed on human bodies. It's an ironic situation: The NBA became what it is today by celebrating the human qualities of its employees, but in using that model, it has to work the players like robots.