Three Reasons NBA Players Don't Need Games Off

By JimMcilvaine
Mar. 12, 2017

There's been quite a bit of discussion lately about  NBA teams electing to "rest" players and debate on both sides as to whether that's a good idea or not. I was listening to ESPN 540 the other morning out of Milwaukee and Mina Kimes claimed the Golden State Warriors travel more than any other NBA team this season. Hearing that, it feels like the arguments for and against resting NBA players are just getting silly, if the same groups that treat advanced stats as gospel are now measuring miles traveled during an NBA season and citing it to make a case for resting a player. Here are three reasons these arguments are only painting a small portion of the picture.

There's No Conclusive Proof Lots of Travel Impacts Performance Over A Season

There are lots of small studies and highly-paid "Sleep Doctor" consultants, who will support a narrative a team is looking for to justify sitting a player, but that doesn't mean their findings are conclusive. Part of the claims suggest Western Conference teams have longer transits between cities, so they have less time to rest. However, a look at the winningest regular season teams in NBA history indicates that's a non-issue. A total of 19 NBA teams have won 65 or more regular season games in league history and eight of them are Western Conference teams (expand the sample size to those who have won 64 games in a season and the split is 10/12 favoring the Eastern Conference). That is hardly a compelling case that Western Conference teams are somehow at a significant disadvantage over the course of a season (the three most-recent teams added to that list are all Western Conference teams).

But what about the playoffs? Did those teams suffer from dead legs at the end of a playoff run? Of those 19 teams, all but four made it to the NBA finals (two missed from each conference). One thing that is frequently overlooked in analyzing this information is the type of travel an NBA team uses. Everyone in the NBA now flies privately, but that wasn't always the case. In fact, I remember the San Antonio Spurs being one of the last teams to move from commercial travel to chartered flights in the early-1990s

I think it's possible the '85-'86 Celtics flew charters all season long, but I'm not so sure about the '67 Sixers, '83 Sixers, the '71 Bucks, the '72 Lakers, or the '73 Celtics, all of whom are also on that list and some of whom might've even taken trains in between games. When NBA teams were still flying commercial, the league rule on back to back games was that teams had to take the next available flight out, which meant if you played a 7:30PM game, you might be required to catch a 5:45AM flight the next morning. That would definitely be a competitive disadvantage.

However, most NBA team planes are now so luxurious, players might actually be better off spending more time on the planes. I say most, because during my first season with the Washington Bullets, we technically chartered our regular season flights (we flew some commercial flights in the pre-season and might've bused to NYC...I can't remember for sure), but the planes we used were standard USAir 737s with just eight first-class seats (and chicken in mushroom sauce...for every in-flight meal). Since we had 15 players and the tallest (myself & 7'7 Gheorghe Muresan) were also the youngest, we weren't going to get the first-class seats, which were supposed to be doled out based on seniority. Scott Skiles didn't think it was fair that he would get to sit in first class as the oldest & shortest guy on the team, so he decided to sit in coach. The rest of the team didn't want to get in arguments over it, so we gave the coaching staff the first class seats and we pushed down rows of seats in the coach section and propped our legs up on the seats in front for more legroom. Those seats were still standard widths and they only reclined so far, so there wasn't a lot of resting or sleeping compared to what might've been possible on the wider, more accommodating seats found on most private charters today.

Teams like the Mavericks, Heat &Trailblazers were also known to be ahead of the curves on outfitting their planes. Seats that reclined all the way to rest guys who had back issues, onboard training rooms and other features were added with no impact to the salary cap, but definitely factoring into the decisions free agents made when choosing teams. This is even going on at the college level, where high school recruits are savvy enough to know the difference between a comfortable NBA-caliber charter and a chartered commuter jet with standard seating. Suffice to say, NBA players have never traveled better than they do now and the quality and comfort of nearly all of that travel is at a level most folks can only read about online.

No One is Documenting How NBA Players Spend Their Free Time

While there is lots of focus on sleeping and traveling habits of NBA players, none of that really seems to take into account how NBA players choose to spend their time away from the court and/or team. The scenario where a team has to wait on the tarmac for a union baggage handler to be woken up at 2AM, so he can sip coffee in his truck while he watches the team's equipment managers unload planes is real. I've personally experienced that frustration, but there's not much that can be done about that. If the plane is comfortable, the players on the plane often just put on their headphones and go to sleep until it's time to disembark. 

What if the flight lands at midnight in Los Angeles and everyone gets to the hotel by 12:45? Are all the players going right to their rooms and getting a good night's sleep? With an 11AM shootaround the next day, some may choose to go out for at least a few hours or discretely invite guests to their room for the evening. The logic is that someone could stay out until 3AM (drinking only water and juice of course) and still get almost eight hours of sleep before shootaround and several more hours after. How much of an impact are those late-night activities having on a player's body over the course of a season, as opposed to playing an extra 36 minutes in a game here or there? 

The wife of one of my friends was walking through a Milwaukee hotel lobby a few years ago, when one of the same NBA superstars who is being criticized for being rested for select games chose her and several other women to join him in his room for the evening. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was mistaken for being part of the group of hopefuls, but again, how much rest are these guys getting if they are entertaining groups of people in their hotel rooms on the road?

Everyone's game day routines are different, but it's not at all unusual to see players out eating a late meal after a game. Many players eat light throughout the day and prefer to eat a fuller meal after they've played. However, after dinner is done, is the player thinking about getting some rest or thinking about getting to the first of several clubs that evening? If fans are upset that they got stuck with tickets for a game after finding out some NBA stars are taking it off to "rest," they should probably put their smartphones to work. Call out the players who choose to get their rest when fans are paying to watch them play, but don't need the extra rest when they're out at the club during the season at 1AM. Some teams might actually be better off stretching that 90-minute flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles out to three hours, if it gets their players more rest and keeps them from heading out to the clubs when they land.

Incentivized Contracts Are A Major Issue

So why not just have some players take a few quarters off in several games, instead of entire games? One big issue is incentivized contracts, both with the team and other sponsors, including shoe companies. I remember one teammate who physically hid behind me and another player during a late-game timeout, because he didn't want the coach to substitute him in for a starter. He hadn't played yet in the game and with just about four minutes remaining, he knew he'd have few opportunities to maintain his scoring and other statistical averages, that were tied directly to his compensation. How is that helping keep the legs fresh on the starters or preventing possible injuries to key players who are more fatigued late in a game that is basically decided? (that player is now an agent, who likely advises his clients to do the same) Could an NBA All-Star help their team get off to a good start in the first half, but hurt their chance at a scoring title if they take the second half off, versus just skipping the whole game?

Questions often swirl around some injured players, who might be healthy enough to play, but choose not to do so, citing a lingering injury. Some of those questions probably have merit, but from the player's perspective, if his contract has performance incentives that could be hurt by him playing limited minutes or not at 100%, why rush back? It might help the team win games or cut down on the minutes his teammates play in games and in practice, but if it costs him significant money because it hurt his averages, not everyone will make a choice that may put the interests of the team ahead of their own.

Teams often offer up these incentives as a way to either save money on under-performing players or get more production out of other players, but are they really shooting themselves in the foot? Getting rid of incentivized player contracts that reward individual statistics could have a significant impact, although there are still shoe companies and other sponsors paying out major dollars, who want the league's leading scorer or rebounder and are willing to pay extra for those accolades. When these factors and outside influences have been fully-considered and dealt with, then we can start looking at whether players really need entire games off.