Opinion: Fans Pay Price for Resting NBA Stars

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Orange County Register (California)


Vin Scully told us this would happen.

"I really think that I will live to see the day in which a player makes so much money that he hires someone to play the games for him," he said nine years ago.

He thought he was joking.

On Dec. 14, the Cleveland Cavaliers faced the second game of a back-to-back schedule. At home Tuesday against Memphis, Wednesday in Memphis.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the three-legged stool of their 2016 championship team, were held out. It wasn't injury or bereavement. It was, according to the Cavaliers, an act of conservation. A rest night in December could lead to great deliverance in June.

But this was Cleveland's only 2016-17 game in Memphis, a red-circle date that now would bear an X.

There were stories of Memphis parents who had shelled out $600 as a present for their son who had recently lost a friend to gunfire. There were stories of early Christmas presents, a close look at LeBron, now roasting in an open fire. There were references to the Grizzlies' special 12-game ticket package that included Cleveland.

Of course, there might have been a couple of Marc Gasol admirers who were equally miffed Tuesday, because Gasol didn't play in Cleveland.

James, as is his wont, felt singled out by the criticism. He also didn't feel he had to defend a trip to New York to get his Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award.

But there it is. The fact that the players don't always play is part of NBA culture now.

It's interesting that James Harden and Russell Westbrook are still punching the clock for every game. They are asked to make more high-stress plays than anyone else in the league. Maybe they'll have a kick-back night, but they haven't yet.

The Clippers are giving players down time because Doc Rivers, when in Boston, took a sleep expert's advice and found it worked. That doesn't explain the sudden drowsiness that consumed the Clippers in the 2014 and 2015 Western Conference semifinals.

It was also supposed to prevent injury, which is why Blake Griffin didn't play at Brooklyn on Nov. 29. Three weeks later, he had knee surgery.

Last season, 18 NBA players played all 82 games.

Ten years ago, 36 of them did. Six players averaged more than 40 minutes, and three of those - James, Joe Johnson and Andre Iguodala - are playing today.

In 1986-87, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley averaged 40 minutes per, and that was a league of far more unfriendly skies.

You have not lived until you have risen at 5 a.m. to catch a plane home from a road game. The NBA had a "first plane out" rule if you played back-to-back. The flights were commercial, sometimes powered by propeller, and the seats were tailored for normal people.

The hotels did not have 24-hour concierges either. The bags did not carry themselves. Bird or Jordan would land and wait for the suitcase to circle the conveyor, just like us.

If you wanted a masseur, you called one. If you wanted special meals, you bought them. And sometimes you played back-to-back-to-back.

Sure, they had rest days. From June to October.

Commissioner Adam Silver, proactive in so many ways, is hands-off on this issue. His predecessor, David Stern, fined San Antonio $250,000 when Gregg Popovich refused to play Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in a jubilee of a regular-season game at Miami.

Popovich was the pioneer of creative resting and is given credit for getting Tim Duncan to age 40, although it seemed kind of pointless when Duncan was on the bench in a key Game 6 moment in the 2013 Finals. Miami got an offensive rebound and won game, set and match.

More likely, Popovich was sticking a thumb in the eye of the breakneck schedule, which is certainly absurd.

But it's hard to see why it's more absurd now than it's ever been. It is also hard to hear any player or coach volunteering to take fewer bucks to play fewer games.

Maybe a less-compressed schedule will make the problem go away. Maybe Silver can gently persuade coaches to schedule these rest days at home, where fans have 41 looks at their heroes.

Still, one remembers the 76ers' bus, pulling up to Kemper Arena in Kansas City in the December shiver, and a sellout crowd awaiting the lone visit by the NBA's master of weightlessness.

"Is this our only game here?" Julius Erving asked teammate Harvey Catchings, who told Erving that it was.

The Doctor paused.

"Let's give them something to remember," Erving said, and then he did.

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January 6, 2017


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