The Cleveland Cavaliers rested LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. Not-so-shockingly, it caused an uproar.
It’s the holiday season. Your significant other got you a stocking stuffer that puts you 13 rows back from courtside at your favorite team’s arena. Whether it’s the Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz or Dallas Mavericks, you’re thrilled nonetheless. It’s still relatively early in the NBA season, and you’re about to watch LeBron James (or another superstar) play in person for the first time. The excitement is too much, and the butterflies rival the ones you got on your first date with your middle school crush.
The atmosphere is perfect; behind you, a middle-aged man brought his son to first NBA game, and you can’t help but overhear the seven-year-old pepper his old man with questions as two guys in front of you have the classic “LeBron-or-Jordan” debate.
“Daddy, why isn’t LeBron James playing?”
“That’s a great question, son. See, LeBron is resting so that he’s healthy for the playoffs in May and June,” replies his father.
“Oh! I see. But that’s so far away.”
There is nothing that bothers NBA fans more than seeing star players rest. James isn’t the only case; Gregg Popovich got criticized for resting his guys — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili — but it wasn’t as harsh because they’re all older. If Steve Kerr elects to rest Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant (or Klay, or Draymond, or all four at the same time), he’ll get mocked just as badly as LeBron.
Fans who pay to attend games to see these once-in-a-lifetime talents do have a right to get upset if they don’t play, especially if said fan traveled 800 miles through rain, sleet and snow. Frankly, I’d be a bit upset if that happened to me, but the athlete or team shouldn’t be crucified because of it. Fans have to rationalize why a team would want to rest their stars early in the season.
It’s all about circumstance. How much of a luxury is it for Tyronn Lue to rest his three best players and nothing is jeopardized? It’s incredible. I believe that teams would love to have a situation like that, regardless if they’re against resting players or not. If you were to ask 100 people, roughly 90 of them would pick Cleveland to come out of the East. The Cavaliers are one of three, maybe four, teams who are capable of cruising through the regular season on pure talent; Golden State, San Antonio are the other two, and the Los Angeles Clippers are on the bubble. (I’m feeling generous, I’ll throw Toronto in there also since they’ve looked pretty damn good this season.)
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Lesser teams, e.g. middle-of-the-pack and borderline playoff teams, need to show up for every game because those couple of games might make or break that season; for Cleveland, a game or two is the difference between the first or second seed, not the eighth and ninth.
Even if it’s the difference between the fifth and seventh seed, it’s still significant because matchups are huge in the postseason. It doesn’t matter who the Warriors, Cavs or Raptors play, but it does matter who the Pacers, Thunder or Trail Blazers play.
As of this writing, the difference between the fifth and seventh seed in the East is the difference between playing Cleveland or the Bulls.
If you choose to look at it this way, resting players is more of a privilege than anything else. It’s a way of showing the competition that you’ve, essentially, clinched a playoff spot and that the game is virtually meaningless.
Arrogant? Possibly. And the best thing an opposing team can do is blow out the other team.
The next time you talk to someone who’s frustrated about teams resting players, ask them if the regular season is meaningful.
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