We haven’t learned much from the NBA postseason, which has been devoid of both drama and competition.
But one thing we can say with certainty is that teams who rested players throughout the regular season have seen that risk pay dividends.
Remember the backlash the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers received for resting their stars on back-to-back winter weekends earlier this season? They were seen to have devalued the already-watered down regular season.
How dare they have audacity to do it during primetime nationally televised games?
They dared to do it is because when your season is characterized as championship or bust all you care about is how you play and feel in May and June. I’m sure basketball fans — and ABC executives — are happy that the two super teams on a collision course are healthy for the NBA Finals, which begin next Thursday.
The benefit of regular season success is to put you in and advantageous position come playoff time. But that seeding advantage is useless if your players are not heathy or rested enough to close the deal.
The Warriors and Cavs know this better than anyone as their most recent NBA Finals failings and success were in some part due to the physical toll the NBA season takes on high usage players. Two seasons ago, the Cavaliers couldn’t overcome injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as they fell to Golden State in the Finals. Last year, Curry was a shadow of his MVP-self after he sprained his MCL in the first round.
Still, the main ingredient to Golden State’s three-year dominant reign isn’t just superior talent but superior health. The Warriors have played in 11 playoff series under Steve Kerr and in nine of those series at least one starter on the opposition has missed time due to injury.
The San Antonio Spurs were the first organization to emphasize rest at the consequence of padding the win column. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were put on a regimented maintenance program at the height of the Spurs dynasty that saw each miss plenty of regular season games in order to be at peak health for the playoffs. The only difference now is their chief rivals have caught up with their own deployment of star minutes. Which is why it was cruel irony that the Spurs’ playoff chances were derailed by key injuries to Parker, Kawhi Leonard and David Lee — all of which ended up being season-ending.
Which underscores an important point: Resting players doesn’t absolve you from playoff wear and tear. It just lessens the likelihood.
What it does guarantee, however, is that if and when you do deal with the inevitable injury bug you are well equipped to handle it.
It’s not like the Warriors haven’t had any health issues this spring. Kevin Durant, Andre Igoudala, Shaun Livingston and Zaza Pauchilia have all been held out of game this postseason due to health concerns. But, like San Antonio, their strength in numbers mantra has prioritized depth in order to best navigate the marathon that is an NBA season.
So far, the calculated risk of resting stars has paid off as the Warriors (12-0) are the first team to sweep their first three seven-game series. They also are winning games by an average of 16.3 points while shooting a field goal percentage of 50.2 and allowing an opponent field goal percentage of just 41.6.
The truth is nobody remembers the regular season.
Nobody held a parade for the Golden State Warriors after they pushed themselves to win a record 73 regular season games last year but ran out of steam and blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals. If the Cavaliers go on to win the title nobody will remember that they won only 51 games and didn’t finish first in the East.
Similarly, nobody will remember the poor regular season television ratings when stars rested. Ratings for these playoffs are higher year-over-year and the Finals numbers will be through the roof because this will be the first time we’ll see these two teams meet where their stars are healthy.
The intrigue of the rubber match is that both teams are not only peaking at the right time, but their best players look spry and are playing their best basketball of the season.
In sports this concept isn’t profound or new. Top sprinters expend only the amount of energy needed to qualify for the meet final. In team sports, baseball and soccer managers have often given players days off periodically with the long view in mind. It will be interesting to see if the NHL, which has a similar regular season and playoff structure, but differing culture, follows suit.
The truth is the regular season doesn’t matter. Rest does.
It could make the seven-month NBA season tough to watch moving forward, but it has helped make the best-of-seven NBA Finals a must-watch.