Kerr's call to rest stars on back-to-back part of modern NBA reality

ByTom Haberstroh ESPN logo
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Over the years, Doc Rivers has spent hours agonizing about whether to rest his stars. As a former All-Star who played 13 years in the NBA during the 1980s and 1990s, the notion of a healthy scratch just never occurred to him as a player. Taking games off? Preposterous.

"I wanted to play 48 minutes a night," Rivers says. "I was pissed when [Rivers' former coach Mike] Fratello took me out." But after coaching for almost two decades, he has reversed course on his thinking. Why? The scientific evidence began to pile up. Scientist after scientist repeated the same message: The NBA schedule does not provide adequate rest for the body to recover. The science just didn't agree with the old way of thinking. Before a game against the Charlotte Hornets recently, Rivers spoke up about the rest and recovery issue, likening it to the scientific acceptance of climate change.

"I know that I'm not that smart," Rivers says. "Smarter people tell me there's a better way. I'm dumb enough to listen. That's the way I look at it. There are too many people that are telling you that [resting players] is good," Rivers said. "It's like global warming. I'm just saying, there are a lot of scientists that believe in global warming."

Rivers understands that this makes him different than most former players in TV studios and front offices. Hornets coach Steve Clifford hates bringing it up with team owner Michael Jordan and his assistant coach Patrick Ewing. Rivers has tried talking some sense to former greats and has since given up.

"You can't talk to them," Rivers said. "You really can't. I don't talk to any of the ex-players about rest because they kill me. They don't want to hear it. That's a fact. They don't want to hear that stuff."

But Rivers points out that most of the critics are too far away to see what's happening in the locker room. They are not with these athletes every day and they don't hear what the doctors tell him about their player's health and injury risks that they face in today's stretchy game. Coaches around the league have seen the recent study that shows a 3.5 times greater chance of in-game injury if a player plays a road back-to-back compared to one at home.

Reminder: Rivers got his schooling at Popovich University. His final NBA season as a player was with the Spurs organization when Gregg Popovich was the general manager. Rivers' first post-playing gig was as part of the Spurs' broadcast team. Over the years, Rivers has spoken with reverence for the longest-tenured coach in the game.

And it's no coincidence that Popovich was the NBA's pioneer on resting stars in the name of injury prevention. This past summer, Rivers hired a host of sports science and performance gurus to help keep his stars healthy for the long term. And one of their recommendations was to rest stars when recovery wasn't possible. This season, Rivers began resting players as early as November.

But Rivers and Popovich aren't alone in this thinking. Another proud member of the Popovich tree?

Steve Kerr, the guy who announced Friday night that he'd rest his stars during Saturday's nationally-televised marquee matchup between the Warriors and Spurs (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).

Kerr walked into his hotel room in San Antonio this morning just in time to see the clock flip to 3 a.m. The weight of the decision he made hours before in Minnesota was acutely felt as the bus pulled into the hotel lot. There waiting were dozens of fans seeking autographs from Warriors players.

Kerr and the Warriors staff had been dreading this stretch of the schedule for months. This summer, sources say, Warriors brass put their heads together and brainstormed how to best navigate the brutal schedule that had them play eight games in eight different cities in just 13 days time -- including two cross-country flights and 11,000 total miles covered.

The Warriors even considered not sending all of their players to Oakland for a nationally-televised game against the Boston Celtics and instead send them directly from Atlanta to Minnesota for the back-to-back against the Timberwolves and Spurs. But ultimately they decided to travel for every game and see how the players felt. "What we couldn't have anticipated was KD's injury," Kerr told on Saturday morning, "which is playing a major role in this."

This, Kerr says, is one of the hardest coaching calls he's made. Just before midnight on Friday night, the reigning Coach of the Year announced that he would rest Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala for the nationally-televised game against its West foe. Three All-Stars and the 2015 NBA Finals MVP would be sitting in addition to All-Star Kawhi Leonard, who has entered the concussion protocol after a blow to the head in Thursday's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Though Kerr didn't make the final decision until after Friday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, this situation has been brewing for quite some time. He typically only glances at the schedule, believing that it's 41 home games and 41 road games.

"This particular stretch was so outrageous," Kerr said," we had to look at it."

Even before Friday's tilt against the Timberwolves, Kerr had made it clear that this stretch was an outlier.

"It's truly insane," Kerr said on Thursday on 95.7 The Game. "This is the worst stretch of schedule that I've ever been a part of and I've been in the league since 1988. I've never seen anything like this, eight games in eight cities with 11,000 miles."

To recap the Warriors "journey," as Kerr calls it: The Warriors played Feb. 25 in Oakland; flew across the country for a game in Philadelphia on Feb. 27; flew overnight to Washington DC for a back-to-back on Feb. 28; jetted to Chicago for a Mar. 2 game; hopped on a flight back to the East Coast for a game at Madison Square garden on Mar. 5; flew down to Atlanta for a back-to-back on Mar. 6; jetted across the country to host the Celtics in Oakland before embarking on another back-to-back in Minnesota and San Antonio. Saturday's game will be the Warriors' fifth game in seven days, the same long-dreaded stretch that Popovich faced in 2012 when he kept his stars home in San Antonio rather than send them to face the Miami Heat. To Popovich, it just didn't make sense to risk injury, even though it was a nationally-televised game.

This was a tipping point for the league. And it served as a backdrop when Kerr received troubling info from this training staff this past week. Before the Celtics game, Kerr saw SportVU data that suggested his players were slowing down, and injury risks may be climbing. So he made the call to rest Shaun Livingston on Friday and other stars on Saturday. Would Kerr have rested his stars today if Pop hadn't done so in 2012?

"That's a good question," Kerr said. "Popovich laid down the groundwork and made it acceptable and made it smart, even."

Not everyone thought it was smart. Then-commissioner David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for not properly alerting the league office about sitting its players "in a timely way" and called it "a disservice to the league and our fans."

But Adam Silver has resisted fining teams for similar decisions. Kerr applauds Silver for his openness to this difficult topic. The league has agreed to stretch the season seven to ten days in 2017-18 and cut down on preseason games in addition to cutting down back-to-backs.

"What I really respect about Adam Silver is he's been really proactive about trying to deal with this issue. He's all ears when we talk to him."

Kerr personally brought up this March stretch in a conversation with Silver this summer. What was Silver's response? Kerr said Silver promised he's working on it and the league was "going to do everything we can to lighten the load."

"And I believe him."

Today's stars are resting more than ever. LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have rested multiple times this season. Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have joined the movement as well.

This is the NBA battleground, pitting big business against the science. And the math says this problem won't go away anytime soon.

"The next step is for the league to look at the national TV stuff," Kerr said. "And that's a tricky one."

Back in 2015, Kerr felt so bad about resting his stars during a game in Denver that he sent gift packages to bummed-out Warriors fans who emailed him complaining that they drove all the way to the Mile High City only to find out Curry and Thompson wouldn't play. That's a lot of gift packages he'll have to send these days.

"Now, everyone's going to call me up asking for free stuff," Kerr jokes now. Balancing fan interest and the health of the players is an increasingly difficult proposition. National TV games are at an all-time high, thanks in part to a billion-dollar deal with Disney and Turner. And it's a predicament that disproportionately faces good teams.

What Kerr didn't bring up is that the Warriors will travel more miles this season than any team in the NBA. All told, 54,736 miles this season. And that's the second season in a row that they've ranked first in miles traveled.

Part of that is pure geography. (It's hard to make quick trips out of the upper left corner of the United States; Portland ranks second.) But the other part is national TV games have to be squeezed into specific days of the week (Saturday and Sunday for ESPN/ABC, while Thursdays are TNT days).

The Warriors were scheduled an NBA-high 28 games on national TV this season and were tied for most last season at 25. Travel is closely linked to national TV games. If you compare total mileage and games on national TV this season, there is a noticeable correlation. Each of the top seven travel-heavy teams in total mileage have an above-average number of national TV games. (Teams like Golden State, Houston, LA Clippers and Oklahoma City). Of the bottom 10 teams in mileage, only Cleveland and Chicago have more TV games than the average team. But Cleveland and Chicago are located in the heart of America, where trips are naturally shorter.

This presents a no-win situation for coaches. Sit the stars, catch heat from fans. Play stars, have a greater likelihood of injury that could shorten a player's career and jeopardize team's title chances.

Kerr has to weigh the toll of travel and respecting the business side. It's not an easy call, but one that Kerr feels is part of the occupation.

"I just have to think about what my job is," Kerr said. "I can't worry about that stuff. I can be sensitive to it, but I can't prioritize it over my players' health. My priority is my players' health and being ready for the playoffs. That's my job." No one likes to see Durant in crutches, a result of suffering a knee injury on the second night of a back-to-back. Though the freak injury seemed accidental when Zaza Pachulia fell into his knee, what if Durant could have reacted quicker on a full night's sleep? We'll never know.

But these are the type of hypotheticals that weigh heavily on Kerr. He took great pride in playing every game for four straight seasons with the Chicago Bulls. But he also admits he and other players would grind it out without any scientific knowledge of how it might shorten their careers or lead to burnout. History backs up Kerr's long-term concern about stars trying to win multiple titles and leaving early. Larry Bird retired at 35 when his back gave out. At the peak of his career, Jordan took 18 months off to go play baseball. And he hung it up again at age 35 after another three-peat. Almost half the Miami Heat rotation retired after losing to the Spurs in 2014.

Can Stephen Curry avoid the burnout? Can LeBron James? Chris Paul? Kevin Durant? Blake Griffin? Copying Popovich's rest playbook makes a lot of sense to Kerr and Rivers.

The openness to resting stars has been regarded as a generational thing. But make no mistake, this is about listening to science and getting with the times.

"I don't know if it's generational," Rivers said. "I think that's the easy way of dismissing it. I think it's educational. We've evolved."

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