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Resting Era Is Here to Stay, but NBA Needs to Remember That Winning Still Counts

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterDecember 20, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER, 16:  LeBron James #23, and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers smile from the sidelines on November 16, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

The smell of the Korean fried chicken wings wafted above all the other catered food options, and the steam drifted at the same slow speed from the shower area into the quiet locker room.

It was the losing team's locker room, and the guys sitting in it cared deeply that they were the losing team.

Allow me to take you back to the feeling that night in Milwaukee, two weeks before last Christmas, when something came to an end that probably will never be recaptured in this Rest Era of the NBA.

It was a team having given more than anyone could have expected, both mentally and physically, in pursuit of a regular-season victory.

The Golden State Warriors didn't win that night, losing the 25th game of their season after winning the first 24 to set a record in major professional sports. It came at the end of two weeks on the road, the second night of a back-to-back set after a double-overtime win in Boston, and it left Golden State one game short of becoming the first team ever to sweep a seven-game road trip.

However empty the Warriors felt then was not because of what they'd lost. It was because of all they'd given of themselves.

This is the danger in this Rest Era of the NBA. The value—and the very integrity—of a regular-season victory becomes undermined because it's no longer smart to try your hardest to win every time.

For all of us who have respected the achievement of playing all 82 and admired every athlete willing to fight through pain or illness to get his job done if there's no risk of worsening an injury, we have to accept, however reluctantly, that things are and will be different.

The players' emphasis has shifted from maximizing themselves in the moment toward increasing their odds of enduring. There's no doubt that longevity is available in ways it never was before.

Before sitting out the Knicks' trip to play the Warriors this month, Carmelo Anthony told Newsday, "I think everyone needs a rest day, to be honest with you."
Before sitting out the Knicks' trip to play the Warriors this month, Carmelo Anthony told Newsday, "I think everyone needs a rest day, to be honest with you."Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The average player's NBA career reached 8.02 years in 2015, according to a league source—the first time it has ever topped that eight-year mark. It was 4.78 years in 1990, and even though it has fluctuated with time, the average career length has increased every year since 2009.

We should and must move forward with new information and ideas. It's not just the players or trainers wanting rest; the league office accepts it, too. There's flat-out too much support for it from sports science to disagree.

Let us understand, though, what the current days are: middle stairs on our climb to a greater consciousness where preventable injuries are indeed prevented, and only random acts derail the best teams and the best players from doing what they do best.

In this transition period from the old to the new, the only goal is to use the new tools in a responsible way for a greater good. That means serving the individual players in the best waysreplacing group ladder drills at the end of practice with personal biometric data determining who should do whatwhile maintaining the integrity of the league.

And maintaining that integrity is what is of greatest concern in this era of sports science. The issue isn't that LeBron James is sitting on occasion to save himself, nor is it that anyone else whose data shows he has reached injury vulnerability takes a seat.

The problem is in trying to ensure that teams are maneuvering and strategizing while actually trying to win each game. At least to some extent.

You can't tell me that Tyronn Lue and the Cleveland Cavaliers can't juggle things or push the guys to keep James and Kevin Love in the lineup if the club wants to rest Kyrie Irving for a week.

Resting all three tells everyone—and everyone is far more important than those few fans who planned to go to Memphis for James' only visit of the season, sorry—that the Cavs truly don't care about the game. The Cavs were not even going to try to use their brains or competitive juices to compete that night.

And more at issue than hurting themselves, the Cavaliers are helping build the case that it's OK to blow off the regular season. Even if Cleveland, with its safety net of superiority in the Eastern Conference, is well positioned to take the L it got from the Grizzlies, the spirit of not trying damages the league and all its partners.

It's not altogether different than James sitting out the final four regular-season games in 2010 to be stronger for the playoffs. But it is possible to weigh short- and long-term goals at the same time; we do it every day in regular life.

And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and all of us watching the league need to be vigilant in making sure there is a balance of those goals in these decisions.

Kings coach Dave Joerger told reporters he had decided a few days prior that he would rest DeMarcus Cousins in a recent game against the Rockets.
Kings coach Dave Joerger told reporters he had decided a few days prior that he would rest DeMarcus Cousins in a recent game against the Rockets.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

At least there is some logic in the Sacramento Kings trying to reset DeMarcus Cousins' overall energy status bar by resting him at a time the schedule is light so he’d miss fewer games. Resting him when Rudy Gay and others were already missing, however, reeks of rigidness and surrender, not creativity, particularly with the Kings needing every possible victory.

At least the Los Angeles Clippers rested Blake Griffin late last month at a strategic time (the fourth game on their season-long six-game trip) against a logical opponent (they figured they could beat the lowly Brooklyn Nets without him, even though they didn't).

And now we know Griffin has been hurting. He favored his right leg a week later in a blowout loss to Golden State and is set for Tuesday surgery on that knee.

At least there was also a deeper issue in the Los Angeles Lakers resting D'Angelo Russell, 20, on Saturday at Cleveland when he would've gained valuable experience just from competing against the champs (who were at full strength). Russell's sore left knee is still problematic to the point it could require offseason surgery, according to league sources.

But there are plenty of non-injury games being missed because it simply is a different era.

Although he's rightly credited for his durability, James has never played all 82 games in a season.

It's clearly not on his bucket list. He was in the vicinity each of his first eight NBA seasons but didn't do it, including 81 games during 2008-09, when he sat out the regular-season finale at home and the Cavaliers dropped to 39-2 instead of tying the all-time NBA record for best home record.

James was league MVP that season, but saving himself didn't work out in the playoffs as his top-seeded Cavaliers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic. For what it's worth, Howard played 79 games that season—the only time in his first six campaigns he did not play all 82, and the only time he has ever reached the NBA Finals. Still, he lost in the title round to the Lakers.

Had Howard won that season, he would've built additional momentum for this rest trend much earlier. Certainly, it would have galvanized the league sooner if the San Antonio Spurs had been able to win the 2013 title a few months after Gregg Popovich was fined $250,000 for not bringing four top players to a regular-season showdown against James' Miami Heat (who edged the Spurs for that '13 crown).

Gregg Popovich has long been a proponent of resting his veteran stars in the regular season to keep them healthy for the playoffs.
Gregg Popovich has long been a proponent of resting his veteran stars in the regular season to keep them healthy for the playoffs.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

That's why the Warriors' ultimate failure last season is so important in evaluating all of this.

This is a team that has been at the forefront of analytics with regard to recuperation and sleep. They practice immediately after long flights to be active and often stay overnight after road games for better rest. They limit hard practices to only once every couple of weeks. They embrace long-term planning and set a precedent in March 2015 by resting both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for a game in Denver. 

Last season, the Warriors wanted to have it all, short and long term, and they went for it—making for a lot of truly meaningful regular-season games similar to that night in Milwaukee. And, of course, they got their all-time-best 73-9 regular-season record.

The Warriors made the regular season matter, making even random regular-season meetings must-see events. Alas, their ultimate failure in Game 7 of the NBA Finals made both us and them second-guess trying so hard—and has pushed everyone to overweigh the rightful place of this better-safe-than-sorry, long-term planning.

Golden State coach Steve Kerr all but said as much before the season, telling the Mercury News, "This year, we're going to pace ourselves somewhat."

Amid the debates of whether to rest, it's funny how people are missing the most obvious reason why stars should sit during home games as opposed to on the road: winning.

If you rest your star at home, you still have a decent chance of winning that game without him because role players are more likely to succeed with the benefit of that home-court advantage, where the league is a collective 225-182 this season. That isn't often the case on the road.

As we move forward in this rest-filled NBA world, it's important to the health of the league that teams are trying to seize every day by challenging themselves and their opponents.

Y'know, still trying to win.

We might never get everyone's best effort on every night anymoreand Curry's, James' and others' wonderful careers should last longer as a result—but let's make sure we're seeking the best possible balance in our goals. We all deserve that much.

       

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

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