Dallas Mavericks

How the rest has won: Sitting players now a common NBA strategy

Dirk Nowitzki, flanked by Mavericks teammates Charlie Villanueva, left and Raymond Felton, is averaging 29.7 minutes this season, the fewest since he was a rookie in 1998-99.
Dirk Nowitzki, flanked by Mavericks teammates Charlie Villanueva, left and Raymond Felton, is averaging 29.7 minutes this season, the fewest since he was a rookie in 1998-99. Star-Telegram

Back on Nov. 29, 2012, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich created quite a stir when he unilaterally sent starters Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home before they could play in a nationally televised road game against the world champion Miami Heat.

The game against the Heat was the finale of a brutal East Coast road trip that consisted of the Spurs playing six games in only nine days. Thus, Popovich surmised that his team’s long-term health and playoff fortunes were more important than a game one month into the NBA’s 82-game, marathon regular season.

So he sent four starters home with his blessings, and with no regard to the ticket-paying customer who wanted to see the Spurs play their star players in their only trip of the season to Miami.

David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, was incensed and fined the Spurs a whopping $250,000.

“The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case,” Stern said at the time in a statement. “The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami.

“The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

But the then-controversial tactic used by the Spurs has become en vogue throughout the league.

Instead of resting players without regard to NBA protocol, teams today are simply circumventing the rule by informing the league, the media and the opposing teams of their intentions in a timely fashion.

Resting players for certain games in large part is due to the teams’ hectic traveling schedules, the age and health of players, and the NBA’s wacky schedule, in which teams often play four games in five days.

It’s also done with an eye trained squarely on the big picture — the all-important playoffs.

Still, some players, such as Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis, aren’t keen on the idea of sitting.

“I don’t like to miss games, so that wouldn’t work well with me,” said the sixth-year veteran Harden, who is among the NBA leaders in minutes played. “But I can certainly understand why teams would choose to rest some players.”

Despite the Mavericks recently coming off seven games in 10 days, Ellis had no thoughts of missing a game.

“[Coach Rick Carlisle] knows I’m not going to do that,” said Ellis, a nine-year veteran. “He knows I’m not going to take no night off.”

Memphis forward Zach Randolph, a 13-year veteran, also said he would rather play than rest.

“I know a lot of teams are doing that, and to each his own,” Randolph said. “But I’d rather be out there helping my team trying to win games.”

The Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler leads the league in minutes played with an average of 39.8 in 46 games through Thursday.

Earlier this season, after the Mavericks’ grueling 132-129 double-overtime victory in Chicago, Carlisle sat forward Dirk Nowitzki the next day in Milwaukee so the 36-year old superstar could get some much-needed rest.

Carlisle also didn’t play Tyson Chandler and Nowitzki during a Jan. 14 game in Denver, one night after the Mavericks defeated the Kings in Sacramento 108-104 in overtime.

So far this season, Nowitzki has sat out four games for rest. The team is closely monitoring the 17-year veteran’s playing time. All four of the games that Nowitzki missed were on the back end of back-to-back games.

“We’ve done some strategic rest nights, so far a few here and there,” Carlisle said. “There will probably be more.

“I don’t know when those will be. We’ve got to work at our health.”

Nowitzki used to get in a tizzy whenever a coach mandated that he miss a game — mostly late in the season in the past — just so he could rest. Nowadays, he’s given up that fight.

“I was never, my entire career, big into resting,” Nowitzki said. “But obviously as I get older I need to be smart with it and just see how it goes.”

Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons, in his fourth season in the league, sees the overall value in getting veteran players some calculated rest from time to time.

“It’s definitely a smart way of saving your older guys,” Parsons said. “It’s hard for these guys at that age to put the wear and tear on their body and to be playing back-to-back, and playing four games in five nights.

“In the long run it’s definitely smart and efficient for a player to get some rest when he can. It’s a thing that you have to consider as a coach and as a franchise, and the older the team is, the more you’ll have those concerns.”

Chandler, a 13-year veteran, believes the resting of players can be planned with a purpose, with most of the decisions depending on how the schedule falls and whether the team has enough quality players to win games when some of the front-line players aren’t playing.

“When you have the type of depth that we have, it’s really good to make this happen,” Chandler said. “Every team can’t, but it says a lot about the coaching staff that it doesn’t matter whether it’s the starters or the reserves out there.

“But it’s more important that you’re fresh and healthier down the stretch than it is earlier or in the middle of the season.”

The resting of these Generation X players is a new strategic phenomenon that wasn’t prevalent when Derek Harper played. In fact, players back in the day would be laughed at and talked about if they didn’t play just because they wanted to receive some rest.

“The old way of doing things was if you’re healthy, you play, you suit up, you go out there and you try and do your job,” said Harper, who played in the NBA from 1983-99. “But now the season is long and I just think coaches worry more and concern themselves more with the playoffs and later on in the season than they do during the regular season, especially if you jump out to a good start as a team where you build a pretty solid record.

“You’re pretty much — not a given to be in the playoffs — but you know you can beat certain teams without your best guy, why not rest a guy?”

Regarding Nowitzki, the Mavericks value him so much that he’s playing the fewest minutes (29.7 per game) since his rookie season. They know the veteran’s basketball mortality is fast approaching, and the more rest he can get the more productive he’ll likely be when the playoffs roll around.

“Obviously there’s concern,” owner Mark Cuban said. “That’s why we limit his minutes.

“We try to be smart and we keep our fingers crossed. Whether you’re on the court or off, a professional athlete or not, there’s an element of randomness that you just don’t know.”

And that randomness is why resting players to maintain a competitive edge is all the rage in the NBA today.

“We work hard at [resting players] ... as do a lot of other teams,” Carlisle said. “But you do what you can and just keep pushing forward.

“It’s getting more attention in certain obvious cases. It’s becoming a fact of life and something you have to do when you have veterans.”

Especially if a team has veterans who are in the latter stages of their career.

“Clearly as guys get older in the league now, I think it’s more prominent now,’’ said Harper, who works as an analyst on the Mavericks’ television broadcasts. “We talked earlier about Popovich being the guru behind it — resting Tim Duncan and Ginobili and whoever he felt like resting — and if you know your team and you know the heartbeat of your team, I think it can work for you.

“Obviously, it’s worked for San Antonio because they’ve won championships. Guys that are in the latter part of their career, I can see it, and a guy like Dirk getting an opportunity to sit down if you don’t need him that particular night, then I think in the long run you’re going to benefit from it.”

Dwain Price, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @dwainprice

Wait a minute

The NBA’s leading minutes men have a couple things in common: They all are 30 or (usually much) younger, and all but Ty Lawson have made at least one All-Star Game. A look at the leaders in minutes per game this season through Thursday’s games:

Player

Team

Age

Games

Minutes

Jimmy Butler

Bulls

25

46

39.8

Kyrie Irving

Cavaliers

22

48

37.8

LeBron James

Cavaliers

30

41

37.0

Ty Lawson

Nuggets

27

48

36.8

Damian Lillard

Trail Blazers

24

50

36.3

James Harden

Rockets

25

49

36.3

LaMarcus Aldridge

Trail Blazers

29

44

36.1

Anthony Davis

Pelicans

21

44

36.1

John Wall

Wizards

24

51

35.9

Carmelo Anthony

Knicks

30

38

35.8

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