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NBA Teams Are Resting Players Earlier And Earlier

This NBA season has produced plenty of eye-popping box scores, but some of the most talked about stat lines recently have been the ones filled with zeroes and marked by a controversial note: Did Not Play-rest.

On March 11, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr opted to keep his core players — Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala — out of his team’s marquee matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, citing a desire to protect his players’ health after Golden State’s 11,000 miles of travel over the preceding 13 days. One week later, the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tyronn Lue, held out LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love from the team’s own nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Those benchings apparently did not sit well with the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, who sent team owners a memo saying that the coaching practice of resting healthy players is an “extremely significant issue” for the league. And Silver’s comments didn’t sit well with James: “I don’t understand why it’s become a problem now, because I sit out a couple games?”

James is right: NBA players have been getting extra days off for years. But lately teams are embracing rest more than they ever have before, perhaps because coaches are convinced that giving a player a night off here and there can help a team come playoff time. If you’re looking for someone to credit or blame for the recent popularity of this philosophy, look no further than San Antonio. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the guru of rest.

BENCHINGS ATTRIBUTED TO REST
COACH TEAM LAST 3 SEASONS TOTAL
Gregg Popovich Spurs 61 113
Doc Rivers Celtics, Clippers 22 45
Rick Carlisle Mavericks 32 41
George Karl Nuggets, Kings 18 26
Mike Budenholzer Hawks 19 19
Dwane Casey Raptors 19 19
Steve Kerr Warriors 19 19
Mike Brown Cavaliers, Lakers 16
Mike Woodson Hawks, Knicks 16
Brett Brown 76ers 15 15
Tyronn Lue Cavaliers 15 15
Coaches who have rested players the most

Source: Pro Sports Transactions Archive

Since 2006,1 there have been 609 instances of a player missing a game because he was resting, according to a query of over 50,000 injury reports from Pro Sports Transactions Archive, a database containing NBA transactions dating back to the 1940s.2 Popovich has been responsible for 113 of those 609 games missed by healthy players — more than twice as many as any other coach — and even twice as many as any other franchise. (All the data in this piece is current through March 16 of this year.) And his influence has bled into the rest of the league, with many of his former coaching assistants (Mike Budenholzer, Mike Brown, Brett Brown) and former players (Steve Kerr) becoming some of the most enthusiastic adopters of the DNP-rest once they became head coaches for other teams.

Popovich was also the first coach to unexpectedly rest four key players in the thick of the regular season for a nationally televised game — a strategy for which the Spurs were fined $250,000 by the league in 2012. His decision to send home Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Tony Parker before a November game against the Heat was the prototype for the prime-time no-shows that have echoed through the league in recent weeks.

Popovich has defended his approach to player rest. “It’s a trade-off,” he said earlier this month. “You want to see this guy in this one game? Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career? And do you want to see him in the playoffs because he didn’t get hurt because maybe he got rest?”

It’s unclear if regular-season rest really can prevent playoff injuries, but that hasn’t stopped Popovich from trying. In the 2013-14 season, Pop strategically managed the workload of his 30-something star trio, choosing to rest Duncan, Ginobili and Parker 10 times combined over the course of the season. Duncan, in particular, was given ample opportunities to relax. The Ageless One skipped a game each month in November, December, March and April and had two games off in February. Later that year, the Spurs beat the Heat to win the championship in part because James suffered through painful cramps during his fourth consecutive playoff run to the finals after a 2,900-minute regular season. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, meanwhile, poured it on during the series, playing an extra 3.9, 5.9, and 5.8 minutes per game, respectively, than they did during the regular season. It’s impossible to say what role the extra rest played — but it couldn’t have hurt.

Like his rivals, James has been taking the occasional day off for years, but until recently, 90 percent of his rest days came in April, during the final two weeks of the season — including three games in the last week of the 2011-12 Heat campaign. But during the past two seasons, the Cavaliers have taken a page out of Popovich’s book and embraced a near Duncan-esque rest program for LeBron. During Cleveland’s championship run last season, James skipped at least one game in each of December, February, March and April. This season, he’s missed games in November, December and March, with more rest likely leading up to the playoffs.

As a result, James finds himself rocketing up the all-time “DNP-rest” list for NBA players. Predictably, the Spurs’ Big Three hold prominent positions on the list. But with Duncan (No. 1) and his longtime foe Kevin Garnett (No. 3) resting comfortably in retirement, James is in position to eventually overtake the top spot.3

PLAYER TEAM GAMES MISSED FOR REST
Tim Duncan Spurs 38
Manu Ginobili Spurs 26
Kevin Garnett Celtics, Nets, Timberwolves 23
LeBron James Cavaliers, Heat 19
Tony Parker Spurs 17
Rajon Rondo Celtics, Kings, Mavericks 16
Paul Pierce Celtics, Nets, Wizards, Clippers 14
Dirk Nowitzki Mavericks 12
Dwyane Wade Heat, Bulls 12
Joel Embiid 76ers 11
NBA players who have missed the most games because of rest

Source: Pro Sports Transactions Archive

LeBron’s recent increase in games missed for rest is emblematic of broader league-wide trends. Each season, the number of games missed to rest is increasing, and the timing of the missed games is shifting earlier and earlier into the season.

From 2005-06 to 2010-11, the overwhelming majority of games missed for rest were in April — at the very end of the season. In 2011-12, as a result of a lockout-condensed schedule, teams started resting players in January, February and March. (I looked into why there was such a dip in 2012-13, and there wasn’t a clear explanation.4) More recently, the tendency has been to rest players even earlier — like, in October.

From 2005-06 to 2007-08, only teams that were in position to make the playoffs5 rested players. Since then, the practice has spread — teams outside the playoff picture have accounted for 36 percent of the games missed for rest so far this season. But it’s the rest decisions of contenders that make headlines and invite controversy. Consider the outcome of the two ambitious rest campaigns discussed above — Duncan’s in 2013-14 and James’s in 2015-16 — both were rewarded with the NBA championship. Compare that to the Warriors’s meltdown in last year’s finals after they spurned rest in the regular season and hard-charged their way to the all-time single-season win record. For teams with serious championship aspirations, the motivation for rest is clear. It’s likely going to take more than a strongly worded memo from the league office to convince them otherwise.

Footnotes

  1. In our data set, the first instance of a rest notation is from a Phoenix Suns game on April 14, 2006.
  2. For all NBA games available in the archive, we queried injury reports for descriptions that included the word “rest.” In an email, the archive’s curator, Frank Marousek, said this would return “most (if not all) of the rest games” in the archive, whose injury data is drawn from internet sources, including media reports, as well as league and team contacts.
  3. Teams’ injury descriptions are taken at face value. In the case of Joel Embiid, for instance, another team might have chosen a different description for his injury, but the Sixers listed it as “rest.”
  4. The number of total injury entries in the Pro Sports Transactions Archive for 2012-13 is comparable to other nearby years, so there’s no reason to think there were data reporting problems for that season.
  5. I.e., teams that ranked among the top eight in their conference’s standings at the time of the DNP-rest — meaning they would make the playoffs if the season ended that day — as opposed to teams that ranked ninth or worse.

Todd Whitehead writes on the NBA for Nylon Calculus and other publications.

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