The latest person to weigh in on the NBA’s fastest growing issue of resting players is Hall of Famer Karl Malone.
“If you don't have at least 10 years experience, get your ass playing,” Malone told ESPN’s Sage Steele. “It's not work — it's called playing. Besides, tell our underpaid service members and police and first responders to rest. They can’t.”
On Saturday, the Cleveland Cavaliers rested LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love against the Los Angeles Clippers. It was the second straight week where an ABC televised game didn’t feature a team’s stars, after the Golden State Warriors sat Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala in a game against the San Antonio Spurs, despite all four being healthy.
Over the past few seasons, the NBA has attempted to reduce back-to-backs and travel schedules to provide more in-season rest for players. However, the top teams in the league continue to rest players with frequency.
The NBA would prefer that players not sit out, of course.
This is especially true for nationally televised games, which are supposed to highlight the sport at its best and instead lead to boring blowouts with lesser known players. But while the league fined the Spurs $250,000 in 2012 after they rested players on national television, they have reconsidered that approach.
“I’m sympathetic to fans who turn out — whether they buy tickets to games or watching games on television and don’t see their favorite player on the floor,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, according to USA Today, before conceding it’s not his place to dole out a team’s minutes. “I think that’s a core responsibility of the team and I think it’s a very slippery slope for the league office to start getting in the business of telling a coach or team what minutes a player should play.”
The reality is that only a few teams in the league can afford to rest their best players and not worry about how a loss could affect their playoff chances. But those teams are the best in the league, and the ones that spend the most time on national television, which makes it a more visible issue.
It’s hard to fault the teams, though.
Given that every team has millions of dollars invested in their stars, of course they’re going to prioritize their well-being over the fan experience for a single night. One study provided to ESPN showed that injuries were 3.5 times more likely on the second night of a back-to-back played on the road.
Players hardly ever sat out to rest during Malone’s era, but teams also didn’t have the same data available to them. With new, more precise information coming out about player health, teams can’t ignore it and carry on just like they would have done 20 or 30 years ago.
That’s the dilemma that teams and the league face, with no easy path for the two sides to meet in the middle. The NBA will continue massaging the schedule, possibly starting the season earlier while trying to eliminate as many back-to-backs and lengthy road trips as it can.
But all the while, teams will continue resting when it’s beneficial. Like Steve Kerr joked last week, maybe it’ll get even more elaborate.
“I’m going to rest all 13 guys that game,” Kerr said. “So we’re just going to forfeit.”