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The NBA Is Giving Teams No Excuses To Sit Stars In Big Games

If you want a sense of what it was that forced the NBA to alter the way it schedules games, take a close look at a one-week stretch in mid-March.

On March 11, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs — separated in the standings by a mere game-and-a-halfeach sat out their best players during a nationally televised Saturday game on ABC. A week later, the Cleveland Cavaliers did the exact same thing, sitting LeBron James among others in a marquee, ABC-carried game against the Los Angeles Clippers.1

Asked whether the league contacted the Cavs about the team’s decision to rest its stars during the contest, David Griffin, Cleveland’s general manager at the time, said an NBA official called him almost immediately. “Seven minutes after it was announced. Yeah, they were not happy,” he said. “I feel bad for the league. I really do. But it is what it is from an injury standpoint.”

In response to such concerns — including the fact that NBA teams have begun resting players earlier and earlier in the calendar each season, even when they aren’t in contention — the league made sure to build in a decent number of rest days around its biggest, most-hyped games this season to prevent clubs from using that rationale to sit star players in those contests.

Perhaps the clearest shift in this regard: The league did its best to ensure that ABC will not be left showing the Warriors without Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or the Dubs’ other stars. Golden State, the NBA’s most televised team2, played five games on ABC last season, with four of those matchups being part of a back-to-back set.3 But this year, Golden State is slated to play six games on ABC with none of those being part of a back-to-back.

More broadly, league officials were able to reduce each club’s number of back-to-back showings by beginning the season a week earlier than usual. The average team will now play just over 14 back-to-backs over the course of the season, down from 16 last season. And for the first time in league history, no team will be forced to play four games in a five-night span.

Over the past few years, the notion of resting players has almost become commonplace, even after the Spurs got hit with a massive $250,000 fine in 2012 for holding out a number of its best players in a high-profile game against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. But there is an argument to be made that the league was overstepping its bounds in that case. After all, what if a team runs out of gas in the postseason, largely because it overexerted itself during a regular season in which players were all but forced to play in high-profile, nationally televised games? Aside from the injury risk, it’s also taking a key coaching decision — when and how to push your players, versus when to relax them — out of a coach’s hands.

By striking the balance it did Monday night, the league may have found a way to keep players more happy, and fans at home more interested.

Footnotes

  1. ABC is a part of Disney, the same parent company as FiveThirtyEight/ESPN.

  2. This is the case again this year. They were the most-televised club last season, too.

  3. A back-to-back is a stretch in which a team is forced to play games on consecutive days, without any true rest — a scenario that arguably waters down the quality of play, since players are fatigued for the second game.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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