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Health debates have been all the rage lately, with health insurance leaping to the front of American politics and NBA stars drawing scrutiny for sitting out nationally-televised games. LeBron James has been at the center of the NBA debate (as usual) after sitting out a Saturday night game on ABC, with the league and its partners concerned about potential fan reaction and lost revenue.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a pioneer in the fight to get additional rest for star players, and he likely extended the careers of some of his older greats with minutes management in the regular season. The most hilarious example came in 2012, when Tim Duncan sat out a game with an official explanation of "Did Not Play–Old."
Asked about the dilemma the league faces, Coach Pop described the complication by comparing it to America's messy debate over healthcare. Per Michael C. Wright of ESPN:
I think there can be areas like [resting guys at home] where we come together and try to make everybody happy. But that’s why no basic rule has been written, so to speak. Because you can’t write a rule that covers everything. It’s complicated ... kind of like health care.
The analogy is far from perfect—nobody is likely to die if rules are changed regarding rest—but it's certainly a fair way of illustrating the divide between the dueling interests the NBA has. Teams want to make sure they keep their stars healthy for playoff runs, particularly teams with aspirations to play deep into June like the Cavaliers. At the same time, it's a bummer for fans when a player like LeBron sits out during a road game, and fans in other cities miss out on their once-a-year opportunity to see one of the greats of the game play in person.
Just as America is unlikely to go to a single-payer system for healthcare, the NBA is unlikely to do anything to radically change this balancing act of priorities; everyone involved wants to have their cake and eat it too. The league and the players won't shorten the schedule and eliminate back-to-backs because they'd lose too much money, and tickets for big games sell out so far ahead of time that most fans won't wait until the last minute to decide whether to purchase or not.
While he remains sympathetic to the plight of fans, Popovich would prefer if higher-ups stayed out of the decision-making process of the people dictating rest for players:
We all have different roles, different jobs, and different goals. We can’t satisfy everybody. But I think that every owner’s gonna be different. I think it’s a slippery slope, and makes it difficult to keep trust, and camaraderie to the degree that I think you have to have to be successful in this league if owners get too involved in what coaches and GMs are doing.
Translation: the toothpaste is out of the tube here. Teams know that fatigue is one of the biggest factors in catastrophic injuries, and they're probably not going to chance the health of their top players for the sake of mid-season entertainment value. Owners and fans have a right to express their displeasure, but as long as back-to-back games are on the schedule, teams will continue to engage in this form of silent protest.