When it comes to competitions where a win or a loss doesn’t spell do or die, teams often make strategic decisions to rest their key players, for whatever reason. Maybe to give the role players a chance to prove their mettle, to avoid risking injury to the top talent, etc.
If a playoff berth is assured, if home court advantage is secured, why bother going all out to win? Its just a meaningless pre-season game right? It won’t affect the standings come playoff time.
Sometimes, coaches just run out of reasons to invent, and just cite ‘Did Not Play – Too old’.
In football with a home and away leg, if one team scores a 5-0 victory in the away leg then they may choose to slack off at home. In basketball, at the end of the regular season, teams often choose to give their best players a game off. Few coaching decisions are regretted more than having a star put in minutes in a contest which won’t affect the outcome of that game/season rank/playoff rank, and then having the star get injured.
The Lakers and the Heat had an amazing off-season. Both teams bolstered their already starry lineups to the point that they now resemble the Western and Eastern Conference All Star teams. Fans of both teams were salivating at the thought of debuts for their new talents. Both teams had their first pre-season matches versus scrubs, the Warriors and the Hawks. And both teams ended up losing because their starters did not play enough minutes. None of the Lakers starters played for more than 20 minutes. No one scored more than ten points for the Lakers. That is not what the fans wanted to see.
San Antanio Spurs’ coach Greg Popovic is famous for managing his starters’ minutes to the point where he chooses to leave them out of the game altogether. As a coach whose entrusted responsibility is to win a championship, he is well within his rights and reason to do what he deems best for the team’s prospects. However, as someone who shares the responsibility to put out a on-court product which gives the audience the maximum utility for its money, such a decision isn’t really justified.
Or is it? Here are some points in favour and against that argument.
Reasons in favour of resting the starters:
“However you want to look at it, 13 games in 18 days or 16 games in 23 days or ending the season four in five nights, it’s just crazy. So I’ve got to do something about it. It just doesn’t make sense to have those guys playing four in five nights, anything like that.”- Spurs coach Greg Popovic
When it’s the last game of the season, you would rather have your team go into the playoffs on rested legs. Leave the stars at home and let the role players step up in the absence. Even during the season, back to back games can take their toll on the players’ body. Managing minutes is important to put up winning performances consistently. That’s how stars are able to play well into their late 30s.
“Players playing that well don’t usually come out of nowhere. It seems like they come out of nowhere, but if you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. It probably just went unnoticed.”- Kobe Bryant on Jeremy Lin.
Jeremy Lin was the Cinderella story of last season. He wouldn’t have got that shot if Baron Davis had not been injured. Lin was close to being released by the Knicks at that time. Circumstances were in his favour and he got a chance to get noticed. Coaches can willingly create such situations where the regular talent is sidelined and the so called scrubs get a shot at proving their mettle. Who knows, you may have a Jeremy Lin on your hands.
3) Avoid injury
Derrick Rose comes to mind here. He tore his ACL on a drive to the hoop late in the game against the Pacers in the playoffs last year. It was so late in the game that Rose could have sat the remaining minutes out, and the Bulls would still have won. Coach Tom Thibodeau got a lot of flack for leaving Rose on the court when the Bulls led by 12 with a minute and a half remaining.
Rose’s injury was in the playoffs. Manu Ginobili had a unlucky injury right before the playoffs when he fractured his right elbow in a game versus the Phoenix Suns in 2011. That injury pretty much decided the fate of the Spurs in the 2011 playoffs. Coach Greg Popovic said then: “Everybody knew it was over. It was like a year wasted, in a sense.”
If you, as a coach, feel that the game is decided/not important enough, then it makes sense to pull your key players out.
Now here are some reasons against resting the key players, regardless of the situation:
1) Audience doesn’t get the value for its money
Not just talking about the fans at home watching the action on TV or following the updates online. It’s also about those people who are physically present at the stadium. Those who chose to spend their hard earned money to buy a ticket to watch a competitive contest, only to find out that the superstar they wanted to watch will also be watching the game instead of playing in it. The Lakers got trounced by the Warriors, and the fans who came to watch the new look Lakers in action were left with just one half of competitive basketball from the Laker stars they came to see. This is especially worse for fans of mediocre teams. Stars often play less against those teams, and their fan base only gets a few chances to watch stars play when a good team visits town. If the stars are sitting out anyway, the fans are left disappointed.
2) Pride is at stake
“Play every game as if it were your last.”- Allen Iverson
The most competitive players feel the sting of a loss every time, no matter how insignificant. Over time they train themselves to bite the bullet and shrug off the meaningless pre-season loss against a poor opponent as something which they can’t be concerned with. They rationalize that losing a game at the end of the season matters less than having to go into the playoffs with tired legs, or even worse, being injured. That cultivates a mindset that some games aren’t important enough to bother with. Complacency can seep into the athlete’s mind and come out at unexpected times. When a blowout game is assured and the athlete cruises along, the opponent can take advantage of it and maybe even make a comeback, which is when such a mindset can come back to bite you.
Also, the players miss out on an opportunity to add to their stats. Ricky Davis will wholeheartedly agree. Some players rub their hands with glee at the prospect of going up against competition which doesn’t pose as much of a threat, just so that they can pad their stats. While not providing a player with an opportunity to pad his stats is nothing to frown at, it may make the player disgruntled when the opportunity is taken away.
3) The inferior team feels patronized
“I don’t even know who is on their team. … I couldn’t tell you much about their team right now.” — Coach Brown said of the Golden State Warriors before their game which the Warriors ended up winning 110-83.
Travel all the way to a different arena and the opponents don’t even bother to suit up. Thinking you aren’t worthy of their time. The worst insult one competitor can offer another is not putting up a fight.
“It’s kind of a slap in our face that they aren’t playing three of their top guys. We recognized it and I think that was the motivation that got us over the hump. That got us through, just thinking about that.” Paul Milsap, on the Jazz beating the Spurs who had chosen to rest their core players.
And it can backfire. “Piddi jaisa chooha, dum pakda to nikla naag!” Disparaging the opponent by sitting out your starters can make them more motivated to beat you.
4) Players may lose form
Lakers vs Sixers, 2001 NBA Finals. There is no excuse for the Lakers here. The Sixers led by Iverson were just too good. AI dropped 48 on the Lakers, in Los Angeles, and the purple and gold were left scrambling for a reason to justify why and how a team which had gone undefeated in the playoffs up until the finals, lost to a team which had battled through two game 7s in their conference to scrape their way to the finals.
There is no excuse, but the pundits still wonder. Did the long period of rest leave the Lakers lax? One team had an abundance of rest. The other had two seven-game series’ and half of their players injured when they made it to the Finals. Look at it this way: if you had 10 days to prepare for a opponent, would you rather play around in contests to get ready or just sit out and run some practice drills?
What do you think? Are teams justified in resting their starters?