When I read about the issue of resting players in preparation for the playoffs, it reminded me that I miss Wilt Chamberlain, who certainly would wonder what blockhead came up with the notion that players need rest.
Rest has been a regular story line for the Golden State Warriors during their pursuit of the best regular season record in NBA history. At 72-9, they need only a victory Wednesday over a struggling, injured Memphis team – which has lost nine of its last 10 games – to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 wins.
There seems to be little doubt that the Warriors will do exactly that. But coaches worry if there has been a toll. Golden State began the season with 24 consecutive victories and was chasing the record 33-game run of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. At the time, Luke Walton was filling in for coach Steve Kerr, who was sidelined with complications from off-season back surgery. Walton and Kerr wondered if heavy minutes played by starters would have a negative impact later.
After the winning streak ended, the Warriors set their sights on the Bulls’ record but, again, rest became a major issue. After a victory over San Antonio last week that clinched the top seed, Kerr told reporters he was leaning towards resting players. With 73-9 in reach, however, the players urged Kerr to lean the other way.
“Think about the year we’ve had,” said All-Star forward Draymond Green. “[We] started 24-0, haven’t lost two in a row all year, have had several streaks of seven-plus wins in a row, yet we’re still sitting here needing three in a row [to break the Bulls’ record]. That tells you how hard this is to do.
“To get this far and kind of just tank it and say, ‘Aw, never mind.’ Let’s face it, we probably will never get to this point again. That’s why it’s only been done one time. I think most guys in the locker room are all in, and we’ll figure that out this weekend.”
If there was a debate, Kerr allowed the players to win it. In the two games after the victory in San Antonio, Steph Curry played 69 minutes, Klay Thompson played 70 and Green played 68.
Rest as a major issue is a recent phenomenon in the NBA. It was only a little more than three years ago when the Spurs were fined $250,000 by former Commissioner David Stern because Gregg Popovich did not play Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Danny Green in a nationally televised game at Miami.
Current Commissioner Adam Silver has taken a more moderate stance. In an interview last year on ESPN, Silver said: “I’m a fan, too, so it bothers me. On the other hand, I’m extraordinarily reluctant as the commissioner, or the league office, to dictate minutes to coaches, especially great coaches, so I don’t have an easy answer to that.”
But the question is: Does rest really make a difference? Perhaps in the case of 40-year-old Tim Duncan and 38-year-old Manu Ginobili, it does. But how much rest do young players need? Curry is 28 and Thompson and Green are 26. As Thompson said, “When I’m 36, I’ll be looking to rest more.”
So now we get to Chamberlain. I’ve written and said many times that of the many records Wilt set – such as the 100-point game – the one that will not be broken is the 48.5 minutes per game he averaged in 1961-62 when he played for, interestingly, the Warriors, although they were in Philadelphia at the time.
The Warriors played 80 games that season. Wilt, 25, was able to average more than a full game of playing time because the Warriors played 10 overtime periods. Of the 3,890 minutes the Warriors played that season, Wilt was on the floor for 3,882; he missed the final eight minutes of one game only because he was ejected after getting two technical fouls.
All basketball fans should periodically look at Wilt’s stats because they are so outrageous that they make you laugh. In that 1961-62 season, here were Wilt’s numbers:
Rebounding: 25.7 a game.
Minutes played: 48.5 per game.
Wilt also played 12 playoff games. The numbers:
Minutes played: 48.0 per game.
Rest? Who needs rest?
And yes, yes, I know it’s a different game, different era, different approach, better coaching, better athletes, etc. But here’s the point: Do 20-something world-class athletes who play 35 minutes a game 82 times during a 170-day period really need extra rest? There are other factors – travel, practice, etc. But I think when it gets to a playoff series, the team that wins will be the best team, not the most rested.
I often wonder if Popovich is at least amused by the irony of his actions, although there is nothing funny about your team being fined. Popovich wasn’t the first coach to rest players late in the season or get fined for resting players. But he was the first to regularly rest them several times during the season. It now is a standard practice in the NBA, one that is often criticized because fans who purchase expensive tickets are deprived of watching stars play.
I understand Kerr is looking for every edge and he knows that despite a brilliant regular season, 73-9 will mean very little if the Warriors don’t win the championship. But here’s a solution – if one of his young players gets tired, just tell him that in the spirit of the Warriors franchise, he needs to find his inner Wilt.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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