We can’t have it both ways in sports (or life), yet we insist on trying. We bounce between hard, cold truth and warm-and-fuzzy fiction, choosing whichever flag suits our purpose at a given moment.
For instance, consider the controversy over NBA teams resting superstar players.
Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sparked outrage by keeping LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench Saturday during a nationally televised blowout loss against the L.A. Clippers. A week earlier, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr committed the same offense, declining to play Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in a primetime matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.
The coaches ruined the experience that ticketholders and TV viewers expected! What a slap in the face to broadcast partner ABC and corporate sponsors! Lue and Kerr should be ashamed of themselves for disrespecting the game like that!
Announcers Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson seemed to take Cavs’ absences as a personal affront. “This is an absolute joke,” Jackson complained. “Who is protecting the fans? Who is protecting the game of basketball? Something’s gotta be done.”
Van Gundy went further. “If this was any other business, it would be a prosecutable offense – this type of bait-and-switch maneuver that the NBA allows its team to pull,” he said.
Yet, in a survey of Cavs’ and Warriors’ fans, 100 percent would agree that long-term health and rest for the postseason is more important than any single, regular-season game. Every NBA general manager would sign up to lose a game in March if it meant winning four in May. NBA coaches would unanimously choose to be short-handed for meaningless contests down the stretch opposed to win-or-go-home games in the postseason.
What, the Cavs/Warriors should base their decisions on fans who brought premium tickets to watch marquee players? The national TV schedule should be the deciding factor on managing rest? The league should dictate which players can sit out and when? Spare me.
“We’re very sensitive to the fact that from a fan’s standpoint it hurts,” Cleveland GM David Griffin told ABC sideline reporter Lisa Salters during an in-game interview when she asked about the missing Big Three. “But it’s the right thing for us.”
Griffin told ESPN that the league office called him shortly after the Cavs announced the decision. “They were not happy,” he said. Reminded that fans and broadcast partners pay a lot of money, Griffin had the perfect rejoinder:
“(The Cavs) are paying me to win a championship. “I’m not overly concerned about the perception of it. We literally had one guy rest tonight, and everybody else was reasonably injured. So I don’t feel like we did anything terribly egregious.”
James was a healthy scratch but Irving and Love were nursing injuries. All three were in action Sunday night at Staples Center and the rest paid off: Irving had 46 points and James had 33 as the Cavs rallied from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Lakers. Love had 21 points and 15 rebounds.
Kerr’s decision a week earlier involved totally healthy players on a team still adjusting to a key missing piece – Kevin Durant. But Kerr pointed to Golden State’s grueling schedule during that stretch. When they landed in San Antonino, the Warriors were in the midst of playing eight games in eight different cities – including two cross-country flights – in just 13 days. The Spurs’ game was Golden State’s fifth in seven days.
A similar grind led San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to not bring Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green when the Spurs flew to Miami for a nationally televised game against the Heat in 2012. Then-commissioner David Stern fined the team $250,000 for not properly alerting the league office about sitting its players “in a timely way” and called it “a disservice to the league and our fans.”
But as the coach of a perennial contender, Popovich absolutely acted in the best interests of his franchise. Teams such as the Spurs, Cavs and Warriors have fewer opportunities to pick their spots because their spots are in demand. High-profile teams play the most national TV games, when expectations of the crowd (especially on the road) and networks are at their highest.
“I just have to think about what my job is,” Kerr told ESPN. I can’t worry about that stuff. I can be sensitive to it, but I can’t prioritize it over my players’ health. My priority is my players’ health and being ready for the playoffs. That’s my job.”
Old-timers don’t want to hear about “rest” and “nights off” for healthy players. Hand them some science – like the 2017 study that shows players a 3.5 times greater chance of in-game injury if a player plays a road back-to-back compared to one at home – and they scoff like climate change deniers.
Lue, Kerr and Popovich understand the truth: Rest matters and some games … not so much.
Opposing views are based on fiction, namely that players are machines and all games should be treated equally.