Why NBA Players Shouldn’t be Criticized for Resting in the Regular Season

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More than ever, players are getting criticized for resting during the regular season. Players hear it from all angles; from fans, from the analysts, and even former NBA stars. The key difference in the game 20 years ago to now is the sport science data and research to back up the idea of resting players. Some may argue the game was more physical in the previous era of the NBA and looking at the highlight reels of fist fights on the court and flagrant fouls, you can’t disagree too much with that. I would argue, though, that the game is more physical in a sense of the physical load the athletes are experiencing from game to game based on the speed of the game. The NBA has since cracked down on physical contact in games in an attempt to bring down player-on-player contact injuries, which brings to light the idea that they are attempting to keep the players healthy and on the court.

If safety is such a big concern of the leagues, why wouldn’t they give the same attention to non-contact injuries that stem from overuse and overly-fatigued athletes?

In the past, the NBA has gone as far as fining teams that rest their star players. Back in 2012, the San Antonio Spurs were fined $250,000 for sitting four star players, including Tim Duncan. Their reasoning for fining teams was due to the fact that the Spurs did not disclose to the league that they were benching their stars. Former NBA commissioner, David Stern, said it was a “disservice to the league”….

How about a disservice to the players?

Just look at their schedules:

Spurs November 2012 schedule

When the Spurs were fined for sitting their players on November 29th against the Heat they had just come off of and won all 5 road games in 8 days. If you include the game against the Heat, when they actually sat their core starting lineup, that’s 6 games in 9 days.

Cavaliers schedule March 2017

Let’s take a look at the most recent criticism of the Miami Heat. This is a two-week span of their schedule in March 2017. In this two-week window, the Cavs play 8 games in 14 days. More specifically, as we get closer to the game against the LA Clippers, where they sat Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, from the 11th to the 19th, much like the Spurs had 6 games in 9 days.

This pattern isn’t very different for any other team either. Each team plays 82 games in a span of 25 weeks (3+ games a week). If we’re talking about an NBA Finals team that’s roughly 90-95 games in 33 weeks. To the league’s defense, they do attempt to schedule away games in the same time zone as to reduce travel fatigue and there are some case-studies pointing to the fact that it is not travel miles, but rather time zones crossed that inhibits recovery to a greater extent. Regardless of how far or close an away game is, in this particular case-study, recovery status after a home game was better than that of any on the road.

Regardless of how far or close an away game is, recovery status after a home game was better than that of any on the road.

Ultimately, I attribute the resting of players to smart sport science teams (or head coaches) that the teams have hired to give their team an advantage. I won’t go into detail on why teams need to monitor and allow athletes to recover because this post on the effect of travel, minutes played, game density and sleep on performance & injury likelihood has done it already. We know how much potential injury shoots through the roof when we don’t allow an athlete to recover sufficiently. Why should NBA teams be fined or criticized for having sensible sport science teams – makes no sense to me.

It’s been thrown around that NBA sport science teams should use better monitoring tactics like the acute:chronic workload from Tim Gabbett (or other like methods). While that method is a great one, I don’t think it would work well because of the density of the schedule. The chronic workload (rolling 4-week average load) would be skewed because of how many games are on the schedule. With this method, if I’m interpreting it’s usage correctly, once the players get four weeks into the regular season, the data would be smoothed out and there would be no, or less pronounced acute:chronic spikes because the acute and chronic workloads would both be high.

Athlete monitoring doesn’t automatically reduce risk of injury. All it really does in this particular case is show that the game schedule is too compact. For athlete monitoring to be useful, there has to be intervention when there is a red flag. I doubt, more sleep, better nutrition, better hydration, etc. would actually fix this issue. The team’s/player’s intervention needs to come in a different form, and in this case, its not playing. No amount of monitoring would actually assist athletes in completing a full 82 game seasons while playing significant game minutes. NBA athletes that play a significant number of minutes night and night out are at very high risk for injury.

No amount of monitoring would actually assist athletes in completing a full 82 game seasons while playing significant game minutes.

The NBA, I would assume, wants star players to have longer careers and be able to play in the most important games for the league, the playoffs. Both of which will create more long-term revenue generation for the league than a single regular season game would.  Why not take a small hit for a big gain? It’s like the league is tripping over dollars to pick up pennies.

It’s duly noted that the league should adjust the hectic game schedule, but it most likely falls on deaf ears.

Some of the criticism as of late has also come from Hall-of-Famer Karl Malone.

I took a look at the comparison of Malone and other greats. There are a bunch of players that I could have added to the comparison below, but I have taken only four:

  • The guy that probably gets the most criticism for taking a night off, Lebron James,
  • the guy that has most recently been open fairly with his criticism against players taking a night off, Karl Malone,
  • Mr. Durability himself, Tim Duncan, and
  • arguably the best player to ever play in the NBA, Michael Jordan.

Unlike Lebron, the other three players are retired. We won’t know how completely durable Lebron is until he gets to the end of his career. I’ve broken down the total number of seasons played, average games played across seasons, and average minutes played per game across all seasons both in the regular season and in the playoffs. I’ve also looked at the average number of games played through the entire season (regular season plus playoffs).

Note: Excludes player seasons that missed a significant number (25%+) of games due to injury or other non-traditional rest. Karl Malone: 2003-2004 (injury) Michael Jordan: 1985-1986 (injury), 1994-1995 (comeback year). Data source: http://stats.nba.com/

Now, I always call “shotgun” on the great Stockton-Malone combo in NBA Jam, but let’s see if his and other’s criticisms hold any weight in this arena. According to the numbers, James has been more “durable” than Malone up until this point in his career for probably the same reason he has actually been criticized; taking nights off. While Malone plays more regular season games than most of today’s NBA stars and beats James by about 4 games during the regular season on average, James easily eclipses Malone in games played in the playoffs by almost double (18.1 to 10.2 games played). When you take the season in its entirety, James beats out Malone in total games played by about 5 games. On top of this James boasts slightly more minutes played during both regular season and playoffs.

When we look at the total games played when comparing the two players this could mean one of two things. Lebron James has either:

  • On average, went deeper into the playoffs than Karl Malone or
  • Played more playoff games deeper in the early individual series than Malone.

We know that Malone only made it to the finals three times (1997, 1998, & 2004) and Lebron has made six finals appearances (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, & 2015), so we can safely say Lebron’s increase in playoff games has come from the former. I think Lebron and others know exactly what they’re doing when they take games off during the regular season. They’re providing themselves just enough inter-game rest at key points in the season to keep themselves as healthy as possible and give their team the best chance of going deep into the playoffs.

By resting at appropriate times in the season, NBA athletes provide their team with the best chance of competing deep into the playoffs.

I’m not sure why Tim Duncan never really got the criticism that many others did. Maybe people take it lighter on him because his meniscus tear early in his career, or because he was never a super-high-flying flashy player (one of his nicknames was actually Mr. Fundamental). Duncan, on average, took off about 10 games each season and played only 33 minutes a game to keep his body healthy – many of the outliers were early on and late in his career. At the height of his career, though, he was playing about 77-80 games during the regular season. The Spurs, and Duncan, were probably the first to take this approach and clearly were the best at it. It worked so well, other teams started to catch on. The Warriors started to rest players and reduce minutes during their regular season games and have a host of other athlete monitoring practices that helped propel them to their 2015 NBA Championship. Other teams, like the Cavs, show that resting players during the regular season is pretty commonplace in the league now.

Lastly, Michael Jordan, who left about 3 or 4 of his prime years on the table throughout his career, retired and eventually made a comeback two separate times. You wonder how his later years would have been affected if he didn’t take those few years off. But, during the time he played, you could say he was the most “durable” out of the four. He played nearly 80 games during the regular season, and 15 games post-season, totaling 95 games played on average each full season. I don’t think Michael Jordan and the word soft will ever occur in the same sentence. To this day, people still talk about the “flu game” where he scored 38 points in the 1997 finals. Not only was he playing nearly the maximum amount of games possible in a season, he was averaging 38 minutes played in the regular season and 42 minutes in post-season play – that stacks up nicely with Lebron’s figures.

Lebron’s least played season up to this point has been 62 games (75.6% of the season) played in 2011-2012. He has only played less than 90% of the season in two seasons (2011-2012 & 2014-2015).  I’m not a Lebron fan, but you can’t argue his durability and longevity over the course of a season and his career so far.

Ultimately, if the NBA and the fans want their star players to play more, the answer is simple – either lengthen the season and keep the same amount of games or reduce the number of the games and keep the length of the schedule.

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