The Cavaliers became the first team in the East to clinch a playoff berth with their 125-120 win over the Lakers on Sunday night, on the backs of huge games from Kyrie Irving (46 points), LeBron James (34 points), and Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds). It’s fully fair to speculate if any or all of the Big Three’s performances would have been so big if they hadn’t been given the previous night off. Which doesn’t mean anyone outside the Cavs is happy about that, mind you.
When Cleveland benched their stars for Saturday night’s nationally televised game against the Clippers, reaction was swift and united. The NBA called GM David Griffin to complain. ABC commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, with a stinker of a matchup to broadcast, called it “an absolute joke” and a “prosecutable offense.” Clippers coach Doc Rivers bashed his counterpart Tyronn Lue, saying “there is a fan base that probably bought tickets tonight to see LeBron James play for the first time.”
Lue isn’t backing down.
“I mean, it’s stupid,” coach Tyronn Lue said of the criticism. “Kyrie didn’t come back the game before, knee soreness, Kevin just had his first game back, we needed two days in between each game. It’s OK, though, whatever. It’s stupid.”
Love, still playing limited minutes, had returned on Thursday after a month out recovering from knee surgery. Irving left Thursday’s game with tightness in his knee. James, who is remarkably durable—he’s played at least 69 games in 13 of his 14 NBA seasons, on top of deep playoff runs in most of them—has sat out six games this year, five of them for “rest.” These are all guys who could’ve used that night off.
Fundamentally at issue is who is to be served by a coach’s decision to sit or start his stars. Is he responsible only to his team and his players? What about the fans, who pay good money and expect to see the league’s superstars? What about the TV partners, who pay even better money and don’t expect to broadcast second-stringers in primetime? What about the league itself—and where, exactly, does the NBA’s interests lie in the long term?
LeBron James isn’t conflicted.
“I don’t think the NBA can do anything about it,” James said on Sunday. “At the end of the day, it sucks at times where certain guys have to rest, but certain guys need rest.
“And it’s a long, strenuous season and the NBA does a great job of putting the schedule together as best as they can. You’re going to have back-to-backs. You’re going to have certain games where certain things fall on certain nights, but a coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game.”
Kyrie Irving cited Gregg Popovich and the Spurs for kicking off this trend of benching stars, and you can’t say it hasn’t been fruitful for the teams that do it. (Though that may be a chicken-and-egg thing; what likely brings success for teams that rest multiple superstars is that they have multiple superstars to rest.) Maybe, eventually, some coaches decide that their odds are better if they rest their stars one at a time instead of all at once, but this is what’s happening now.
Ultimately, this is a decision for coaches and GMs, and I can’t envision any mechanism by which the NBA could prevent teams from doing it. So I’ve got two conclusions:
- The only way the NBA can stop this is to stop scheduling back-to-back games. The only way to do that would be to shorten the length of the season (good), play the same number of games over a longer span of time (bad), and/or get rid of a playoff round (good!). Any of these would require major changes to the CBA, and a sizable loss of income, and so won’t happen. So:
- If you’re a fan, and you want to watch your team host the league’s stars, make sure to check the schedule. If the visiting team’s on a back-to-back, you’re taking your chances.