Page out of Pop's book: Should Warriors rest their stars and risk the No. 1 seed?

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Saturday, March 11, 2017

The increasingly frequent "Should you rest your stars?" question has turned from a debate to a dilemma for theGolden State Warriors.

In 2015, it was a matter of value to the customers, with coach Steve Kerr going so far as to email an apology to a family that drove from South Dakota to Denver and didn't get to seeStephen CurryandKlay Thompsonplay.

In 2016, it was about a place in history, with the players prevailing in their desire to stay on the court to chase a record 73 victories.

Right now, the Warriors are faced with the ironic possibility that resting players to preserve the core for the playoffs could wind up hurting the team's chances once they get there.

The Warriors are in the midst of playing eight games in eight cities in three time zones over the course of 13 days. They lostKevin Durantto injury two games into the stretch against theWashington Wizardsand don't know for sure whether he will be back before the end of the regular season. Golden State has dropped three out of five games for the first time since December 2015.

Kerr pays close attention to what the computerized tracking data says about player workload, and he told ESPN before Wednesday's 99-86 loss to theBoston Celticsthat a couple of guys are "fried" right now (he didn't say which guys). The recent struggles have allowed theSan Antonio Spursto creep within two games of the Warriors in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference -- along with the home-court advantage that comes with it.

Golden State plays in San Antonio on Saturday night on the second end of a back-to-back that begins Friday in Minnesota. And thanks to a thrashing of the Warriors on opening night, a San Antonio victory on Saturday would clinch the regular-season series and give the Spurs the tiebreaker should the two teams wind up with the same record.

So, what takes priority for the Warriors, resting or seeding?

"We still want the No. 1 seed," Kerr said Thursday night. "I'm not going to run guys too ragged to get it. Obviously, we want it, it would be nice to get. But you have to get through the season in one piece. You have to pace yourselves a little bit."

You have to wonder whether Kerr's approach is colored by the Warriors' most recent results. Historically, the home team wins 80 percent of the time there's a Game 7 in the NBA. But that percentage was only 50 percent for the Warriors in 2016; it worked in their favor in the Western Conference finals against theOklahoma City Thunderand then, well, you know what happened against theCleveland Cavaliersin the NBA Finals.

Go back a bit and expand the scope beyond Golden State and the home-court premium falls even lower. Only three of the past eight NBA champions had the best record in the regular season.

Great teams win on the road in the playoffs. The Warriors should have accumulated enough experience over the past two seasons to enable them to do so. The problem is, they've also accumulated extra mileage.

Curry played the second-most minutes in the 2015 playoffs, on top of being in the top 20 in minutes played in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 regular seasons. To get a sense of his workload last season, he finished second in field goal attempts and usage rate behind onlyRussell Westbrook.

Even the reduced games in the 2016 playoffs because of a first-round knee injury, and the diminished duties that came with playing alongside Durant most of this season, haven't been enough to recharge Curry. The same thing that enables his prodigious range -- the use of his whole body in his shooting motion -- also makes his shot more susceptible to the impact of fatigue. He has made only 25 percent (17-for-68) of his 3-pointers in the past six games.

At Wednesday morning's shootaround, Curry wrote off the slump to a "timing thing, or not enough legs, or whatever you want to call it."

"You hope that eventually things will kind of even out," Curry said. "I still feel like I can shoot better -- I know I can. So I'm going to keep that confidence and keep shooting."

Keep shooting, unless Kerr doesn't let Curry step on the court; he could be a candidate to rest this weekend. In addition, both Thompson andDraymond Greenwere both in the top five in playoff minutes last postseason, then joined Team USA at the Rio Olympics over the summer.

Kerr provided a bit of a look into his current mindset of prioritizingrest over results Wednesday when he sat Thompson and Green in the middle of the fourth quarter against the Celtics. They each had played 31 minutes already -- within three minutes and two minutes, respectively, of their nightly averages. But while Thompson and Green sat out, the Celtics scored seven straight points to stretch their lead from four points to 11. By the time Kerr called a timeout and subbed Green and Thompson back into the game with 4:39 remaining, it was too late.

Warriors fans who wailed about Kerr's fourth-quarter lineup didn't take into account that the Spurs beat theSacramento Kingsearlier in the night with a lineup that didn't includeKawhi LeonardandLaMarcus Aldridge. That victory improved the Spurs' record to 5-1 without MVP contender Leonard this season.

One of the side benefits of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sitting his stars so frequently is that the secondary players have had a chance to gain game experience. We saw that pay off in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals when the Spurs' team-based approach won seven of 12 games against theMiami Heat's stars and were one Ray Allen 3-pointer away from back-to-back titles.

In December, I asked Popovich if he realized what he'd wrought with his resting policy. He dismissed the notion that he was somehow ahead of the scientific game; he said it was just something he started to do to preserve Tim Duncan after he injured his knee in 2000. Popovich added some other players to the mix as the core of his Spurs roster aged (even unilaterally givingTony Parkera midseason sabbatical once), the only data feedback that mattered to him was that Duncan wound up playing another 16 years and winning four more championships.

The Spurs' results led to more teams around the NBA sitting their stars. Now it's time to see whether Kerr can beat Popovich at Popovich's own game, whether he can cast concern about the regular season aside to maintain the priority of the playoffs. There's one added wrinkle for the Warriors: Extra home games mean much more money to the organization and the ability to squeeze dollars from the Silicon Valley crowd. That Game 7 in the conference finals was worth an estimated $8 million in gross revenue to the Warriors, according to a report by Bay Area sports columnist Tim Kawakami.

Additionally, the four home NBA Finals games that followed were worth close to $50 million in gross revenues in the information that was provided to Kawakami.

While those figures aren't at the forefront of Kerr's thoughts, they are a sign of just how high the stakes are for Kerr's lineup choices in the middle of March.

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