Last Saturday’s primetime NBA game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers was overshadowed. No, the culprit wasn’t the NCAA Tournament. It was the fact that a game that — on paper — featured the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love duking it out against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan … well, didn’t.
As a sold-out Staples Center and nationwide audience on ABC tuned into the game, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue rested his Big Three of James, Irving and Love, setting the stage for a 30-point Clippers blowout. By the fourth quarter, fans expecting a clash of Eastern and Western Conference titans were stuck watching the likes of Kay Felder and Raymond Felton run out the clock.
This was the second consecutive Saturday night game (the marquee NBA matchup of the week) that suffered from resting superstars. On March 13, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr sat Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, and the star-less Warriors rolled over versus San Antonio in an 85-107 drubbing.
The game fell 12 percent in ratings and 5 percent in viewership from the same Warriors-Spurs matchup in 2016. The tilt in Los Angeles seven days later was even worse, tying the record for lowest-rated NBA game ever on broadcast television.
So, on Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo out to league owners.
“Decisions of this kind do not merely implicate issues of player health and team performance on the court,” the memo said. “They also can affect fans and business partners, impact our reputation and damage the perception of our game. With so much at stake, it is simply not acceptable for Governors to be uninvolved or to defer decision-making authority on these matters to others in their organizations.”
Silver essentially asked owners to step in and make sure coaches and players can’t hurt the NBA’s product by periodically resting superstars en masse. The response to the memo was predictable. Cleveland general manager David Griffin insisted it wasn’t his responsibility to prioritize television partners.
“They’re paying me to win a championship,” Griffin said. “I’m not overly concerned about the perception of it. We literally had one guy rest tonight, and everybody else was reasonably injured, so I don’t feel like we did anything terribly egregious.”
As a sports fan, my knee-jerk reaction was to side with Griffin in this debate. After all, we gripe when our favorite teams don’t trade for a player or don’t spend enough money in free agency because we want that championship. We get angry over hirings and firings because we say it doesn’t give the team the best chance to win.
So then how can we complain about preserving star players for the playoff run, when they will be needed most? Sure, it stinks to see James or Curry on the bench in March, but does it really matter as long as they’re playing every minute come May and June? It shouldn’t.
And though I stand by that principle, I also can’t bring myself to agree with Griffin’s words. Because history shows that NBA championships aren’t won by taking a handful of games off during the regular season; in fact, many all-time greats have lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy after being iron men from October through June. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant combined for 11 rings during their careers, and they started the full 82-game regular season slate in five of those championship-winning seasons, starting 80 games or more in seven. Jordan actually played all 246 regular-season tilts from 1995-1998 while winning three championships in three seasons — and this run began when Jordan was 32.
The 32-year-old James, meanwhile, has only reached the 80-game threshold twice in his career, last in 2009: the penultimate year of his first stint with the Cavaliers. He also hasn’t logged a 3,000-minute season since his debut season in Miami in 2010, while Jordan only failed to do so in three of his 15 NBA seasons— even completing a 2,709-minute campaign in his age-39 campaign.
Why does James require more rest than Jordan did? It’s ludicrous to say James is physically inferior (I mean, just look at the guy), and one player’s injury history doesn’t stand out over the other’s. It simply doesn’t make sense that Jordan was able to endure that much wear and tear in a more primitive era of sports medicine while James — and his fellow NBA superstars — can’t do so today.
At the end of the day, it boils down to this: James and other stars demand the occasional day off. And hey, who am I to judge? Basketball is a job for these people, and you can’t blame them for calling in sick every once in a while to sit around all day watching sports.
It is frustrating, though, to hear selfish decisions framed as selfless ones. Reports after Saturday’s game suggested James had been irked at being benched but accepted his coach’s decision. Considering James pushed former coach David Blatt out of Cleveland last season, it seems unlikely he lets Lue call his shots, especially when it comes to his spot in the lineup.
Griffin was right: Teams’ personnel decisions should be based on winning, not the whims of TV stations. But he is also wrong: The Cavaliers’ decision to rest their stars on Saturday was not based on winning.
If it had been, James and company would have likely taken a seat on Sunday against the Lakers, who Cleveland would have a better chance of beating without its stars. And with the Cavs nursing just a two-game lead over Boston atop the Eastern Conference, they could have used an extra win in Los Angeles.
Alas, Cleveland’s stars chose to rest, and to be honest, that doesn’t really matter to fans (it doesn’t take much effort to flip the channel). But don’t pop a squat on the bench and tell us you’re ultimately doing it for a championship — that is simply false. Just relax and enjoy your day off.
Ollie Jung is a junior studying print and digital journalism. He is also a sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Jung Money,” runs on Thursdays.