Cavaliers, WWW

Keep Resting LeBron James: While We’re Waiting

LeBron James Cavs Spurs
Scott Sargent/WFNY

I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment where questioning science was the in thing to do, but just weeks after Kyrie Irving spoke of “planets” as if they were Greek mythology, we found ourselves listening to ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson being entirely unable to provide commentary on a basketball game because of how consumed they were in the Cavaliers’ training staff deciding to sit LeBron James during their game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, Kyle Korver sat, but his foot is still ailing him. Yes, Kyrie Irving sat, but he injured his knee in the previous game. And yes, Kevin Love sat, but he’s unable to play in back-to-back games as he returns from knee surgery.

There were moments in the game, however, where either Jackson or Van Gundy, who spent most of Saturday night pouting like petulant children, would speak of science and team-specific medical research as if they were simply there to provide excuses.

These were exact quotes from the commentary booth during the Cavs loss to the Clippers on Thursday night:

  1. If you look at the athletic performance teams, these groups that are supposedly preventing injury, when I look at the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’ve been injured all year, so how good are they doing at what they say the can accomplish?
  2. I just don’t understand why they didn’t play tonight. If they’re all going to rest, why it wouldn’t have been against the Lakers who are not putting out their best lineup to try to win right now anyway?
  3. James Harden and Westbrook play every night that they’re healthy. There’s
    no resting. They must have different Athletic Performance Teams because those guys play big minutes, play all-out.
  4. We could play once a month and people would be taking a day off. The reason the salaries are so high is because it is a hard job. The job is strenuous and demanding and taxing. That’s why you make big money.
  5. So which is it. The player’s in charge? If [Tristan Thompson] refuses to rest, that means the other guys could refuse to rest, too. But then you’re told that it’s the Athletic Performance Team who’s demanding that they sit out.
  6. It’s bait-and-switch. It would not be tolerated in any other business. You can’t sugar coat it. You advertise one thing and then you deliver a different product.
  7. But I thought it was all about doing what’s right for the Cleveland fans and their playoff push. That’s what confuses me. All the mixed messages about who’s in charge and how the decisions were made.

Now lets take them one by one:

  1. False equivalency much? Training staffs cannot prevent injuries. They can reduce the likelihood of them happening.
  2. Because Kevin Love couldn’t play and Kyrie Irving needed additional time to rehabilitate his sore knee. Had it been the Lakers first and Clippers second, LeBron still would have rested.
  3. Neither James Harden nor Russell Westbrook are north of 30 years old and have logged over 49,000 minutes on an NBA floor. But please, make this about “Performance Teams.”
  4. The reason salaries are so high is not because the job is hard. It’s because the league makes a ton of money from advertising deals and television contracts and the players collectively bargain for a percentage of that revenue. Difficulty of the job has literally zero impact on how much one makes.
  5. Tristan Thompson’s career usage rate is 15.3 percent. This season, it’s 11.4 percent while playing a hair over 30 minutes per game. LeBron James’ career usage rate is 31.5. This season, while playing 37.5 minutes per game, it sits at 29.9, nearly twice that of Thompson. We wouldn’t expect either Jackson or Van Gundy to understand this sort of simple math, however.
  6. The Cavaliers didn’t advertise anything. The NBA did. ABC did. The Cavaliers, however, did not.
  7. This was a big one for Mr. Van Gundy. He demanded answers throughout the night as to who—WHO!?—made the call for James to sit. To pretend like they weren’t warned, however, was just as disingenuous as anything they were accusing Cleveland of having done.

The ring culture of today’s NBA—the one wherein we sort of appreciate Karl Malone and Charles Barkley but will never even consider putting them in the same conversations with Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael Jordan—has, with each additional year, rendered the regular season into irrelevance. For teams that need to use the regular season to work in new schemes or new players, sure—there’s additional importance there. But those those undeniable contenders, there’s very little additional value in certain regular season activities as health is ultimately the deciding factor in how a team fares come the NBA Playoffs.

Heading into this season, Ty Lue and the Cleveland Cavaliers could not have been more clear on their plans to rest members of The Big Three. Injuries to other players—Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver—while unfortunate, would not have any bearing on whether or not the team’s core stars would play in a given game. The Cavaliers have a Tachometer of sorts for every player on their roster, meaning that each are measured on an individual level so some may be able to play more often than others. In the case of James specifically, the plan was always to let him play as much as needed early on (though some would argue 38 minutes per night is less than idea), and tapering in rest throughout the second half of the season, almost exclusively on lengthy road trips.

In the case of the Clippers and Lakers this past weekend, the Clippers game was a contest played after one day’s rest—a travel day at that—as the Cavs had just wrapped up a game against the Utah Jazz on Thursday night. Resting James for the first of the two games provided two days of rest on both sides of the West Coast back-to-back slate as the team doesn’t play against until Wednesday night in Denver. Again: This isn’t hard to figure out.

There are two parties of people who have legitimate gripes as to what transpired on Saturday night: Those in attendance and those at ABC who stood to cash in on a marquee game only to lose viewers to the NCAA games taking place on CBS. Anyone else voicing complaints about this matter is doing nothing but grandstanding.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the bloviating from talking heads. Check out this on-air straw man:

“Man the frig up.” Because wanting to prolong a career is unmanly.

The league itself has a conflict of interest (or agency dilemma) at play. Each of the 30 NBA teams has a goal of winning a championship, while only a handful of a legitimate shot. As Cavs GM David Griffin told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, he’s paid to win a title and if that means sacrificing a given game during the regular season, so be it. He’s not there to kowtow to the league’s partnerships. If his team isn’t there in June, it’s substantially more detrimental to the league’s bottom line that it is in March.

“[Gregg Popovich] has done it for four years running… I can’t stress enough how important rest is,” Irving said following his 46-point explosion on Sunday night. “You’ve got veterans who have come before us who played 82 games that have their opinions and we’re just in a different time now. The smart way of taking care of your body and understanding what the important goal is at the end of the season is at the forefront of our minds. We’re playing for a championship run. For us, games in the regular season—we all want to play—when our medical staff sits us, I’m not opposed to it.

“This is our sixth game in eight days, traveling from the east coast to west coast,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of fans realize that.”1

To answer Jeff Van Gundy’s broadcast-long question from Saturday, the medical staff held Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out due to their injuries. Ty Lue, with analysis from his medical staff in mind, decided to hold LeBron James out.

“I don’t think the NBA can do anything about it. It sucks, but at the end of the day, certain guys have to rest,” James said Sunday. “A coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game. And obviously it sucks at times because certain games you only play in certain cities once or you play certain teams once on their home floor, but for me personally, I want to play in every game. I wanted to play (Saturday) night but my coach felt like it was best that I didn’t play last night so I’m going to go with my coach and he’s never steered me wrong.”

James is 32 years of age and has exceeded 49,000 career minutes (when you combine regular season and postseason games). If all goes according to plan this season, he’ll exceed 50,000. More than Bill Russell. More than Barkley. More than Jerry West and Larry Bird and a cavalcade of other greats who folks want to use to compare the “good old days” or some nonsense like that where all those days provided was less in the way of medical advancement and understanding.

The NBA may try to spread the schedule out going forward, making it less onerous on players’ bodies throughout the course of the season, but it may not matter. If anything, James should be resting more over the duration of his (already incredible) career, not less.

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  1. This is absurd, by the way. []