Has the NBA's Growing Obsession with Rest Gone Too Far?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 05:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors looks up at the scoreboard as he leaves the game at the end of the third quarter during a 109-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 5, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images
Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 7, 2016

LOS ANGELES — As threatening as the world around us has become, and as natural as it feels to assume protective Gregg Popovich is so smart, let's not lose sight of something fundamentally true.

Playing through pain is good.

The challenge enables you to grow as a person and grow your game. The accomplishment inspires those competing alongside you and any others watching from afar.

Alas, we are increasingly a society of softies…definitely so in the NBA today.

Stephen Curry banged his already sore shin again Tuesday night. He scored on the play but was hobbled, and what followed was a season-worst ratio of breathless tweets to actual minutes missed by injury.

Curry shook it off, stayed in despite a 13-point lead and looked as seamless as ever soon after in nailing a corner three. When he did come out, the lead was 30.

After the Golden State Warriors finished the 109-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Curry said he would continue to play. He acknowledged the pain but scoffed at the four weeks off he was told it would take to heal his bruise.

Very few scoffed with him.

It has become more accepted to save yourself just in case than to maximize the moment at hand, and that's downright sad.

It's an extension of the faulty sentiment that nothing matters except championships—probably a counterbalance for the too-casual number of participation trophies we hand out at other levels.

Participating isn't necessarily something to be so celebrated, but everything matters. Everything is a challenge, and everything is a chance to grow toward a greater goal.

And when adversity must be overcome just to participate, that's when we tap into some new spinal-cord neurons and parts of our brain. The thresholds of pain and perseverance are there to test and strengthen us for the inevitable next ache.

Yet more and more we see erring on the side of caution with athletes' bodies. The safety-first, it's-a-long-season mentality has gained a lot of ground against competitive instinct. Many times, we have trainers and coaches holding guys out regardless of what a player feels or says.

Maybe Anthony Davis and the entire New Orleans Pelicans franchise would be stronger in every way if Davis hadn't been so coddled early in his career. Maybe the 33-2 Warriors would still be undefeated if Klay Thompson had been allowed to tape up that ankle and play four weeks ago in Boston as he wanted.

It's not like he was that far off; Thompson was cleared to play just 24 hours later in Milwaukee, when the stress of the double-overtime game the previous night on his teammates and some rust from Thompson against the Bucks led to the Warriors' first loss.

Klay Thompson missed 10 of his 14 shots in the Warriors' December loss in Milwaukee after sitting out the previous game in Boston.
Klay Thompson missed 10 of his 14 shots in the Warriors' December loss in Milwaukee after sitting out the previous game in Boston.Aaron Gash/Associated Press

You can say winning that game in Milwaukee just doesn't matter. Of course, the Warriors' main goal is to win another title, not keep a streak or win a game in December.

But committing to excellence works a lot better habitually than occasionally.

And as much as we should use advancements in medicine and analytics to keep players' bodies strong, we're getting too smart for our own good. Keep heading in this direction, and we'll soon be stifling the very spirit that makes our greatest athletes great.   

A star is a star far more often because of dedication than some freakish super power. And a huge part of that dedication is knowing what he is capable of—even when up against the limitations of his body.

Even the most Popovich-rested player isn't going to be 100 percent healthy in the playoffs. He needs enough work on the court and synchronization with his teammates to master the craft. So his mind had better be able to get the most out of his imperfect body at that pivotal NBA Finals moment, or that moment will pass him by.

The Spurs have long chosen to rest their core players throughout the regular season in hopes of keeping them fresher for the playoffs.
The Spurs have long chosen to rest their core players throughout the regular season in hopes of keeping them fresher for the playoffs.David Dow/Getty Images

Should his regular-season preparation for that moment cause an injury that happens to prevent him from getting there, so be it. You can only control so much.

Golden State guard Shaun Livingston was assigned to sit Tuesday night despite being healthy. He suited up and was on the bench, but his warm-up pants were only to be broken in case of emergency. Adhering to the protective plan with Livingston—and the Warriors' commitment not to overuse healthy but injury-prone Andre Iguodala—resulted in Thompson being sent back into the game midway through the fourth quarter of the blowout.

Interim head coach Luke Walton and Thompson had to laugh about it as they walked toward the scorers' table for Thompson to check in, but there would be a whole lot of explaining to do if a player as important as Thompson had gotten hurt then.

That, however, would've been totally random. We try to game everything so much now. Let's certainly be smart about not overworking guys, and absolutely use those amazing medical analytics for help, but let's respect the game and honor the process.

There is valid strategy in Popovich picking a spot Wednesday night to rest LaMarcus Aldridge: a home game against a Utah Jazz squad missing injured big men Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. The Spurs won, and David West got a nice run to get him better ready for a possible playoff role.

Yes, there were probably more than a few ticket-buyers or kids of ticket-buyers quite dismayed that the Spurs' celebrated newcomer sat out the one game they were able to attend. And that's another aspect of increasing rest for top players—the NBA shifting from Broadway-style determination not to have fans suffer understudies on stage and becoming like baseball confessing its season is too long with star regulars just missing certain dates.

It's up to each NBA team to decide how cautious it wants to be in this day and age.

Michael Jordan played at least 78 games in every year of his time with the Bulls except two, the first because of a broken foot and the second because he had been in his first retirement.
Michael Jordan played at least 78 games in every year of his time with the Bulls except two, the first because of a broken foot and the second because he had been in his first retirement.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

The risk of losing home-court advantage in a future playoff game is part of it.

More important, though, is the message that is sent or not sent to teammates, opponents and fans when a player does or does not persevere.

For the record: Besides breaking his foot in his second season, Michael Jordan played 82, 82, 82, 81, 82, 82, 80 and 78 games each season before leaving for baseball—and then went 82, 82, 82 in the seasons after his return.

Caution has its place.

That place is just way behind domination.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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