NEW YORK — Steve Kerr got a phone call Sunday morning, and he knew immediately what to do with the information he was being given.
Kevin Durant, who'd tweaked his left ankle the night before in a thrilling 24-point comeback in Philadelphia, had woken up with soreness and swelling. Right then, Kerr knew that Durant wouldn't be suiting up Sunday night against the Nets in Brooklyn.
"It was an automatic," Golden State's head coach told Bleacher Report after the Warriors' 118-111 victory over the Nets at the Barclays Center. "We're trying to play deep into June, and so I'm not messing around."
It was Kerr and the Warriors who were at the center of the league's push to develop a policy, instituted this season, about how and when to rest players. And though Durant technically wasn't healthy enough to play Sunday night, it nonetheless brought to the forefront some of the ambiguities about the rule and the judgment calls that teams are forced to make during the course of an 82-game season to protect the health of their players.
"I mean, shouldn't that be the only thing that matters?" Durant said. "A player's health should be the most important thing. If a guy needs a rest, he needs a rest. If they can play, they can play."
The Warriors decided Sunday that Durant couldn't-shouldn't-wouldn't play in a mid-November game against a team heading straight for the lottery. There's a chance, according to a league source, they will make the same decision in Wednesday night's nationally televised game in Oklahoma City, a move that would further bolster how necessary it has been for Durant to sit out.
"I'm not in the business of lying to anybody about injuries," Kerr told B/R. "I'm just playing it as we should: If a guy's banged up, he's going to get a rest. And maybe I shouldn't use the term rest. We're not going to force the issue, I think is the point."
Resting healthy players—especially in marquee, nationally televised games—had become a source of embarrassment for the league over the past couple of seasons.
As the rigors of the schedule seemed to only get worse, teams began investing heavily in sports-science metrics that allowed them to measure the impact of it all. Fatigue and stress from long road trips, back-to-backs, four games in five nights and the like could substantially affect the players' ability to recover and stay injury-free.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was ahead of his time—and the science—when it came to resting players. But it was one of his disciples, Kerr, who found himself squarely in the middle of the issue last season.
With Durant already out with an injury, Kerr decided to hold out Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala for a nationally televised game in San Antonio on March 11. It was the Warriors' eighth game in eight cities in 13 days, a trip spanning 11,000 miles with two cross-country flights—culminating in a Minnesota-San Antonio back-to-back.
"I still have it memorized because of what we went through," Kerr said. "It was insane."
Commissioner Adam Silver wasn't a happy camper, but he also knew he had a serious problem on his hands that the league needed to play an active role in fixing.
"The great thing about Adam is, Adam listens," Kerr said. "And I sat down and talked with him about it, and he said, 'You're right.' He said, 'The deal that we would like to strike with you guys is, we'll fix the schedule, and you follow some guidelines in terms of resting people.'"
What the league office, general managers, head coaches, team doctors and athletic trainers came up with is "probably as good of a compromise as we could come to," Kerr said.
Despite some misperceptions about the policy, it actually doesn't single out stars or prominent players. Essentially, teams are forbidden to rest healthy players for any nationally televised game, with any violation subjecting the organization to at least a $100,000 fine for conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the league, according to the policy.
Aside from unusual circumstances, the policy says, teams should not rest multiple healthy players for the same game or rest healthy players on the road, when visiting fans sometimes have one chance per season to see a team or players from another conference.
"The coaches were concerned about the health of the players, and Adam was concerned about the business—and they go hand in hand," Kerr told B/R. "So I want the league to do really well. Adam wants people to be healthy. ... The schedule is dramatically better, and because of that, I think we as coaches are willing to work with them.
"There's probably going to be a game or two where eyebrows are raised—a guy rests on the road when Adam maybe would prefer that it didn't happen—but you can't be perfect with this stuff. I think the compromise and the discussion was collaborative and made perfect sense."
In short, coaches and players have bought into the new rule because Silver did his part to help them by fixing the schedule.
- This season marks the first time in league history without a single instance of a team playing four games in five nights. In 2014-15, there were 70 such instances, followed by 27 in '15-'16 and 20 in '16-'17, according to league data.
- Back-to-backs have been reduced to an average of 14.4 per team. As recently as three seasons ago, the average was 19.3—a 26 percent reduction.
- The league identified 22 "marquee" national TV games and protected them by ensuring that none comes in a sequence of back-to-backs, four-in-five or five-in-seven. All come in stretches with less than 3,500 miles traveled in the seven days prior. These include all five games on Christmas Day and all three on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"I looked at our schedule last year, and I told our coaches, 'There's no way we're going to be playing guys in San Antonio on [March 11]," Kerr said. "I looked at our schedule this year, and there's nothing there. ... I think the commissioner did this as well as you can possibly do it. And it was done in such a collaborative way that we all really are anxious to help him out because of his looking out for us."
That brings us back to Durant, whose night off Sunday in Brooklyn may not be his only one this season—or even this week.
"You want to see the best product on the floor as a fan, but you also understand what goes on as an athlete—or, I would at least hope you would understand what we go through as an athlete," Durant said. "The taxing we put on our bodies, especially guys that play big minutes and have the ball in their hands a lot and make a lot of plays. … That stuff adds up after a while.
"We'd hope the fans would understand. But it's not about wanting to sit out just to make the fans angry. Nah, we wouldn't want to do that. But it's all about how we feel. And guys have been making smart decisions lately, so I respect that."
In an interview with B/R, Durant said the old-school notion of playing through injuries doesn't equate with how tough you are or how fiercely you compete. A superstar who's undergone multiple foot surgeries, Durant said there's a distinction between upper-body and lower-body injuries.
"If you've got like a bruise or an elbow that's messed up, that's one thing," Durant said. "But if you've got anything lower body, you've got to be really cautious with that because you never know what that stuff can affect. It's my left ankle; what if I put all my weight on my right side? You never know what's going to happen when you come down.
"Being a competitor, to me, is actually more about how you approach every possession," he added. "Are you going to compete hard every possession—offense-defense, doing everything you need to do to win that possession? That's competing to me. Not fighting through a sprained knee when you know you should sit out. You've got to be smart."
Durant said the league has done a "phenomenal job" of reworking the schedule.
"We have a solid road trip like we're on now for a few days, and then we're at home for 10 days, so it's a cool mix of the two," Durant said. "It's been great so far, and it's been working well. Hopefully, guys continue to stay healthy and we can continue to see great basketball."
That is the whole point, after all.