The new normal in the NBA is to give stars copious amounts of rest, even if that means the stars don’t play every game. Teams have made sure their stars do not play too many nights in a row and, as a consequence, stars are rested even for marquee national television games. The latest example occurred last Saturday night, when the Cavs sat the big stars for an ABC primetime game and the result was that viewers got to see Kay Felder and not Kyrie Irving in a blowout win for the Clipps. The NBA hasn’t spoken much about this phenomenon but this has been happening for a while and the NBA has been conflicted with how to address the issue.
Where did this all start? It’s not the actual beginning point but in December 2012, the Spurs sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green for a game against the Heat that was set for TNT. David Stern was not amused and fined the Spurs $250,000 because he felt they had no basis for resting players so early in the season under a rule that passed in 2010 that allowed the commissioner to fine teams under a “best interests of the NBA” clause. Since then, resting has become a much more common practice. Notably, Steve Kerr rested all his stars for a primetime game against the Spurs a few weeks ago but wasn’t fined because he had informed the NBA publicly in a prompt fashion (the Spurs in 2012 did not do so).
Aside from the transparency issue, Adam Silver has also been more sympathetic to the issue of resting players for long term goals. Silver has recognized that data shows that more rest protects players and that it is hard for the league to regulate playing time: “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.”
Stern was always quite militant about taking a different position on this issue. At the end of the 1989-90, Stern was fining teams for resting players. On the last day of that season, the Lakers chose to rest James Worthy and Magic Johnson against the Blazers for a national televised game, even though the Lakers and Portland were locked into their playoff seeds (Portland ended up winning by 42). Jerry Buss actually apologized for the resting, though Pat Riley was defiant that it wasn’t worth the risk stating that he had “an obligation to our management” to protect his stars. The NBA said the fine was “for failing to play two healthy players who are normally starters.” In fact, in 1985, the Lakers were also fined for not playing Magic or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a season-ender against the Kings.
Clearly, Stern and Silver have quite different views on this. Silver sees that there are very good reasons star players and he called regulating this issue a “slippery slope.” While Stern clearly saw how vital television is to NBA revenues and that teams should be aware that messing with the golden goose is also a sort of a slippery slope in its own right.
So who is right on this issue? Stern’s fining for not playing stars in meaningless games was definitely draconian. On the other hand, he does have a point about protecting national television contracts. There must be some rational explanation for such resting periods and to ignore television totally is not a wise idea. Silver has been hesitant to regulate this issue because it is complicated. Still, as resting becomes more prominent, the NBA will have to come to some rules to limit the usage to more opportune moments. While you can never totally eliminate a team’s right to protect its players, the NBA can do two things: (1) make sure, when possible, that nationally televised games are scheduled after periods of rest so that it is less likely that resting needs to be done and (2) have a flexible rule on fining. Stern was way too militant in fighting this practice but teams do have an obligation to play its best players in meaningful games.
In other words, the Warriors may have had really good reasons to rest their stars against the Spurs but the NBA should make sure those reasons are clearly articulated and justified. Without such protections, television contracts could become less valuable and that doesn’t help anyone. More resting won’t kill NBA television contracts (after all, most fans really want to see the playoff games) but the issue must be addressed before it makes the NBA look silly.