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Coolican: Let the players rest

| Monday, April 19, 2021

Lebron James. Kevin Durant. Anthony Davis. Jamal Murray. Joel Embiid. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. D’Angelo Russell. What do these players have in common, apart from being NBA superstars? They have all missed significant time due to injury this year. They aren’t the only ones, either. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry and James Harden have missed games due to minor injuries as well. According to the NBA, injuries are down from last season, and “within the normal rate” of the last five years. However, we’ve seen star players getting injured left and right this year. 

The shortened offseason may be partly to blame; players whose team made a deep run in the playoff bubble last July barely had an offseason before training camp started up again. The number of back-to-backs in the schedule may be a culprit as well, but it is impossible to speculate what the reason might be. Some injuries, such as James’ ankle injury, caused by an opponent falling on his foot, may merely be freak accidents. Others may be caused by overuse. We’ll never know for sure, but the league must take it upon itself to protect its players. 

Fans and pundits alike love to criticize players who sit out for “load management.” For a time, I was one of them. I figured they’re getting paid millions of dollars to play a game, the least they can do is lace ‘em up every night. The NBA implemented a new policy for the 2021-22 season, prohibiting teams from resting players for high profile, nationally televised games and also has rules against resting players on the road, although these rules are seemingly easy to circumvent by claiming the player in question is injured. The league recently fined the San Antonio Spurs $25,000 for violating these rules in a road game against the Suns. The Toronto Raptors were hit with a similar fine. It is understandable why the league wants to do this. Its ratings are down, and revenues have fallen substantially due to the pandemic, and nationally televised games become a lot less appealing when you find out the star player is not playing at the last minute. However, these rules do a disservice to the players.  

When the Raptors made their famous championship run in 2019, it was in large part due to the incredible play of Kawhi Leonard. Why was Leonard so good in the playoffs? Because he was rested for large portions of the season due to his previous quad injury. Players perform their best in the playoffs when they are not exhausted, especially older, high-usage players like Lebron James. Does it really make sense for James to play in the second half of a February back-to-back that will have little consequence on the playoff race? Yes, they are paid for the full season, but at the same time, their ultimate job is to help their team win a championship. Resting not only prevents injuries, it also allows them to not burn themselves out physically before the playoffs even start. 

Additionally, much of the “load management” that is so heavily criticized is really due to ongoing injury maintenance. We’ve all seen what happened to Durant when he rushed back from injury in the 2019 Finals. Understandably, he’s being cautious this year. It is senseless to risk re-injury if the game is inconsequential. Of course, there are limits to this. A team like the Brooklyn Nets, who in addition to Durant employ the services of Harden and Kyrie Irving, would almost certainly make the playoffs even if Durant didn’t play a single minute of regular season basketball. Is this reasonable? No, of course not. There does need to be a line drawn. However, I firmly believe we have no right to criticize players who take every fourth or fifth game off simply to manage their workload.

I write this as a basketball fan — when I buy tickets to a game, I hope to see the best of the best and I would be disappointed if a star player didn’t play. In past years, I was on the league’s side. However, this year, in addition to the shortened season, the Olympics are coming up this summer. For aging stars like James and Curry, it might be their last chance to represent their country. That will lead to a shortened offseason yet again, and the phenomenon will only repeat itself. The league needs to recognize the strains its players are under and relax the rules about resting, at least for this year. If we want to see peak Durant, James, Leonard and Davis in the playoffs, we have no right to complain when they take a little longer to recover from their injury or simply take a night off.

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