LeBron thinks the NBA's 'rest problem' is only a problem because he's sitting

Ball Don't Lie
LeBron James takes a seat, and the world takes notice.(AP)
LeBron James takes a seat, and the world takes notice.(AP)

One day after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a memo to all 30 NBA teams calling the practice of resting star players for marquee games “an extremely significant issue for our league,” and one that will be punished with “significant penalties” in the future, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar and four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James took issue with the commissioner’s approach and claimed that the league has only begun considering rest days for stars a serious problem now that he’s the one doing the resting.

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Joe Vardon of cleveland.com was among a group of reporters who broached the topic with James on Tuesday in Los Angeles, where the Cavs remain after a Saturday-Sunday back-to-back against the Clippers and Lakers. James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the front end of that set, in a decision that drew the ire of the ABC/ESPN personalities broadcasting the game, mail delivery enthusiasts, fans in attendance at Staples Center disappointed that they’d shelled out for tickets to watch LeBron and Kyrie but instead got served heaping helpings of Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Williamses Deron and Derrick — and, evidently, the league office, which called Cavaliers general manager David Griffin shortly after the team announced its decision to sit its top stars to express its displeasure, and which issued Silver’s statement in Monday’s memo.

In the memo, first obtained by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Silver “states that it is unacceptable for owners to be uninvolved or defer decision-making on this topic to others in their organizations, who may not have the same awareness of the impact these decisions can have on ‘fans and business partners,’ the reputation of the league and ‘perception of our game.'” James — who, for the record, doesn’t like missing games or even getting extended rest within games, and who was “pissed” at being parked on Saturday night — said Tuesday he doesn’t seem to think it’d make much sense for all owners to have to be involved in those sorts of choices:

“That owners be what?” James asked. “That owners be in the decision on resting players? There’s owners that don’t even — that’s not even around the teams. There’s owners that just the owner of the team because they just own the team. That’s just … whatever. What does that make any sense of?

“Adam’s great. Adam is fantastic. I love what Adam is doing for our league. But I don’t see how that — I don’t understand why it’s become a problem now. Because I started to sit out a couple games?”

When a reporter suggested that it’s not just a LeBron issue — recall that one week before Cavs coach Tyronn Lue sat his Big Three, the Golden State Warriors had opted to rest Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala for an ABC-broadcast Saturday night matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, who in turn were without Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker — James smiled and dismissed that.

“It is the case. It’s absolutely the case,” he said. “C’mon, man. You guys know the real.”

“I just know the conversation gets a little bit more talked about when I’m a part of it,” James said Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “If it’s somebody else, it gets blown up briefly, it gets talked about a little bit, but it doesn’t have legs and it’s gone. But as soon as I’m involved, it’s just a whole different situation.”

James also turned the conversation to the Spurs, who popularized this practice years ahead of the rest of the NBA — including the Silver-led league office — turning its attention more proactively to managing their players’ fatigue in hope of preventing injury and maximizing performance.

“[Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] has been doing this for 10 years, 12 years, 15 years,” James said. “And everyone was like, ‘You know what? That’s the smartest thing Pop has ever done. You know, give his guys a couple days off and here they go, five championships. It’s the smartest thing.’ But some of the coaches in our league don’t have the stature that Pop has, and our head coach doesn’t have it, so he gets killed for it. So, I gotta keep winning to help my coach be able to have a reason why he can sit his players.”

OK, so, a couple of things:

• Yes, Gregg Popovich has been doing this for years. You might even remember him doing it in November of 2012, sending Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green back to Texas rather than taking them along to South Beach for a hotly anticipated Thursday night TNT game against LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. That led to then-Commissioner David Stern threatening San Antonio with “substantial sanctions” before slapping the Spurs franchise with an unprecedented $250,000 fine for roster-management malfeasance.

The Spurs paid the fine. Pop remained undeterred from the practice of taking the long view with the minutes of players he’s expected to keep in top working order well into May and June. The world continued to spin, and the rest of the league took notice. So it’s not entirely fair to say that this has never been a “problem” before the Cavs (sort of) started trying to manage LeBron’s minutes; it’s only kind of selectively been a problem.


• According to Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports, the Cavs ran afoul of the commish not solely by sitting their stars, but by not following league protocol about giving everyone an appropriate head’s up before doing it:

[…] just one week after the Golden State Warriors rested four players for an ABC Primetime game (produced by their partner, ESPN) against the San Antonio Spurs, yet avoided Silver’s wrath because they followed league protocol, the Cleveland Cavaliers provided the tipping point in this situation by breaking policy on the same, nationally-televised stage. The Cavs’ failure to list Kyrie Irving (left knee tightness) and Kevin Love (rest as part of his recovery from left knee surgery) on the injury and illness report that was due by 5 p.m. local time the day before their game against the Los Angeles Clippers, while also failing to report the plan to rest LeBron James in a timely manner, was the root of Silver’s angst, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. […]

According to the “Injury and Illness Reporting Procedures” in the league’s operations manual, which is available to teams but not the public, a “participation status” must be designated and specific injuries and illnesses identified by 5 p.m. local time on the day before a game. Back-to-backs are treated differently. Teams have until 1 p.m. local time on the day of the second game to designate injuries. Silver detailed the league-wide expectations regarding resting players in his memo.

“Teams are required to provide notice to the league office, their opponent, and the media immediately upon a determination that a player will not participate in a game due to rest,” he wrote. “Failure to abide by these rules will result in significant penalties.”

Silver’s saber-rattling over penalties came after James told reporters he didn’t “think the NBA can do anything about” teams choosing to rest players during back-to-back sets or rough patches in the schedule, like the ones that had Golden State playing eight games in eight different cities in 13 days or the Cavs playing six games in eight days with travel from Florida to Texas to Cleveland to L.A. in that span. While it’s understandable that Silver feels a need to let the NBA’s teams know that continuing to stiff partners like ABC and ESPN — part of the group that paid $24 billion for the rights to broadcast NBA games through 2025 — as our Eric Freeman wrote Monday, it’s hard to find too much fault with the Warriors and Cavs for resting their players during nationally televised games when they seem to pretty much always be playing in nationally televised games.

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It remains to be seen whether Silver’s memo has the intended chilling effect on teams considering sitting their marquee players down before big matchups. In the short term, though, it doesn’t seem like it.

“I will continue to make those decisions,” Popovich said Tuesday, according to Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. “I would do the same thing [as Silver] probably if I was in his shoes. But I think just because we are coaches and GMs doesn’t mean we don’t understand or know what is going on with the business side. We are a little bit more sophisticated than that.

“But, at the same time, the league has to understand that the science of what we do is a whole lot more sophisticated than it used to be, and we have definitely added years to people. So, it’s a tradeoff: Do you want to see this guy in this one game or do you want to see them for three more years of his career? And do you want to see him through the playoffs because he didn’t get hurt?

“… So we are trying to use the science just like we use analytics with spreading the court with the (big men shooting from outside) and all that sort of thing. If the league things we need to know more about business they need to consider that a little bit more. And, so, seeing that player for extra years and extra games and playoffs based on some science might mean more than just that one game.”

The Cavs struck a slightly more jocular tone on the matter, according to Vardon:

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue and James joked about the memo before practice, with James instructing Lue to put down “fever” instead of “rest” as the reason for the next time James sits. Lue cracked that he’d only coached “95 games,” so he was still learning how to manage his roster.

Lue said he didn’t want to comment when asked if he could imagine running lineups by owner Dan Gilbert.

But when asked if Lue would again rest players in the coming days, when the Cavs play in Charlotte Friday, at home against Washington Saturday, and at San Antonio Monday, he said: “I don’t know. Call the owner.”

While we wait for the next shoe to drop in this ongoing saga, as our Kelly Dwyer wrote Sunday, it’s possible that the issue will be largely resolved next season thanks to the league finally deciding to start the NBA season earlier in October in an attempt to drastically reduce back-to-back games and provide more opportunities for in-season rest for players whose bodies get broken down by the pounding of the game on the court and the strain of the travel off it. As Warriors coach Steve Kerr sees it, that shift — plus a bit more attention to which matchups the NBA wants to feature, when and where — could clear things up considerably. From USA TODAY:

“There’s an awareness on the league’s part that we’ve got to do everything possible, not only with the length of the season […] but sort of examining the checkerboard nature of the schedule — especially if you have key games that you’re trying to promote. Maybe take a look, maybe try to make sure both teams are rested and not at the end of some long odyssey. I think all that is possible. You can’t solve every problem, but I think you can pay attention to it and do the best you can, and I think that will happen next year.”

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait and see whether the league’s top teams will try to avoid thumbing their noses at the commissioner over the final three weeks of the season, or whether someone feels like making what LeBron thinks is his problem into their problem.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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