“Take rest,” Ovid said. “A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” But of course, the ancient Roman poet from the B.C. era hadn’t forked over several pieces of gold to watch the farmer tend to his crops, so what did he care if the guy worked that day or not.
Things are a little different in the NBA, where resting an otherwise healthy player – the way Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue did with superstar LeBron James on Sunday afternoon in Washington – is a touchier subject for multiple reasons.
There’s the competitive aspect, in terms of a team voluntarily not using its full roster in taking on that day’s opponent. There’s the fairness angle, since in this example James is a player who usually plays and wreaks havoc on most foes; sitting him down against Washington but not against Detroit, Orlando, Chicago or Charlotte does a favor for the Wizards while cutting no similar slack to the teams bunched around them in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Then there’s the entertainment factor or, in this case, the caveat emptor factor. Sports franchises market their offerings according to schedules; the more formidable and famous the opponents, generally, the more sought-after tickets to those games become. These days, teams often price their tickets accordingly, charging more for the glamour opponents that feature gawk-worthy stars or suggest the most hotly contested games.
Injury or illness is one thing; sometimes theater-goers get stuck seeing the understudy on Broadway when the star isn’t able to appear. But rest is different, with choice and strategizing typically involved.
When San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich decided to rest four players in November 2012, having them sit out a TNT network game in Miami that fell at the end of a six-game Spurs trip, the NBA reacted swiftly. San Antonio was fined $250,000 by former commissioner David Stern, who called Popovich’s decision “a disservice to the league and our fans.”
Tensions have eased since then, as more coaches have followed Popovich’s lead – OK, not generally for huge TV games in the season’s first month – and even the league HQ has backed off. Commissioner Adam Silver has made schedule-relief a priority in his first two years on the job. Still, it seems a protocol could be provided or suggested, since not all games, opponents and occasions are equal.
When Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were held out of that 2012 Heat game, Stern – in announcing the penalty – noted that it was San Antonio’s lone Miami visit that season. While James sat Sunday, he at least had played in D.C. on Jan. 6, scoring 34 points in a Cavs victory. He will face the Wizards again Friday in Cleveland. At least some Washington fans got to see James up close and personal.
The whole home vs. road dynamic seems to have a role here too. Some fans at the Verizon Center might have welcomed James’ “DNP-Rest” because it upped the Wizards’ chances of winning. Others, though, surely wanted to see the four-time MVP perform, preferring basketball artistry and Monday-morning highlights chatter to any potential edge in the group effort.
Wouldn’t it be more fair, for instance, if NBA stars got their rest by sitting out home games? At least then, the fans in the building – while inconvenienced that night – presumably would reap the benefit of the rest, getting a fresher James, Kevin Durant or whomever for a deep playoff run. Home crowds have 41 chances each season to see its teams’ stars. Road crowds get just one or two.
This likely can’t be legislated away, not entirely. Coaches rest players when they need it, we’re told, not just according to the schedule. Road trips tend to be more draining than home stands, so that needs to be accounted for.
Maybe the Board of Governors – not disinterested parties, considering how much each team touts the dates when James, Durant, Steph Curry or Kobe Bryant visits – could mandate that voluntary rest be taken at home only. Or split evenly between home and road. Or maybe the bookkeeping would drive everyone batty.
But it still seemed odd to have James, in the same week he played against the Pistons, the Hornets and the Raptors, sitting idle in warm-ups Sunday, grooming his fingernails or watching Kiss-Cam on the scoreboard same as them. The Wizards didn’t seem to mind, opening up their fat lead and controlling the action on their way to a 113-99 win, but some of their fans surely did.