The Cavs Rested Their Big Three For The Greater Good And That’s Perfectly Fine

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The Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 93-85, on Wednesday night. The night before, the Cavs rolled Memphis, 103-86, at home. One significant difference between Tuesday and Wednesday nights? LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving all stayed home in Cleveland.

Here’s the start of the Cleveland.com game story, which features an ironclad lede that was absolutely written before first tip.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Cavs left 70.6 points and about $70 million in salary from this season on warm, comfy couches in suburban Cleveland while the rest of the team headed to the east bank of the Mississippi.

The result was about what you’d expect.

Tristan Thompson playing in his 394th straight game did not appease the Memphis hoops fans who hoped to see James, Love and Irving in action. Their absence from Wednesday’s game was, predictably, a big deal to a lot of people.

LeBron James is the star attraction wherever he plays, as has been the case for the last 14 years. Many people specifically bought tickets for Wednesday night’s game to see James in action. They were left wanting.

It was a topic of conversation on the Wednesday evening SportsCenter, where Chauncey Billups defended Cavs coach Tyron Lue’s decision to rest their Big Three. He argued it was a move geared toward keeping his team fresh and focused on another long playoff run.

Tony Kornheiser, however, was less forgiving on Pardon the Interruption.

“This is a disgrace. There’s only two teams that you buy a season ticket for. You buy it for Golden State. And you buy it for Cleveland,” said Kornheiser. “Cleveland goes into Memphis one time. And none of these players is going to be there?”

Kornheiser wants the NBA to fine Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, general manager David Griffin, owner Dan Gilbert and even King James himself. As precedent, he pointed to the NBA fining Spurs coach Gregg Popovich $250,000 for resting four of his starters before a nationally televised game against James’ Heat in 2012.

“This ticket is worthless,” declared Kornheiser. “If you’re in Memphis, this is a worthless ticket.”

His partner in yelling, Michael Wilbon, was also critical of James. He, perhaps predictably, reached back into the past to point out that Michael Jordan routinely played all 82 regular season games.

Now, I’m fine with the national basketball media sticking up for the good people of Memphis, but the case for LeBron James sitting in Memphis is fairly compelling. Wednesday night’s game was the second game in two nights against a Western Conference opponent you have little chance of playing again this season. Before Wednesday, James had played in all but one game this season, not dressing in a 10-point loss to Indiana on November 16. That’s about a month between games off.

A look at his game logs since returning to Cleveland shows a similar pattern in LeBron’s rest days. James did not play in six regular season games last year. That’s 76 regular season games and 21 playoff games he did play — good for a 97-game season. Break it down by calendar year and James has played 98 games in the last 365 days.

James has played by far more minutes than anyone in his draft class, and because he goes deep in the playoffs most years (and has stayed healthy throughout his whole career), he’s already at 36th all time. He’s seventh among active players in minutes – behind Jason Terry (39 years old), Andre Miller (40), Joe Johnson (35), Vince Carter (39), Paul Pierce (39), and Dirk Nowitzki (38). See a pattern? James has logged minutes the way a player at the tail-end of his career has, and this is a guy who is still technically in his prime.

Skipping the Olympics in Rio was not about getting bored dominating international play. This is a 31-year-old basketball player in his 14th season trying to pace himself in anticipation of another long playoff run. As Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor noted in his pregame story, James has averaged 38.8 minutes per game this month. That’s much more than Lue and the rest of the coaching staff were hoping for.

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Lue said Love is dealing with a bad back, and Irving complained of “heavy legs” after Saturday’s 30-point win against Miami. Some balked at a 24-year-old point guard getting tired, but Irving played just 53 regular season games last year and has struggled with injuries. Maybe giving him a week off isn’t the worst idea in the world after an 18-5 start to the season.

At this point, it’s clear that Cleveland is the best team in the Eastern Conference even if James, Love and Irving miss a few games here and there. They’ll have a few more regular season battles against the Raptors and Knicks, sure, but the Cavs are the team to beat in the regular season and beyond. Having that target on your back nightly is a difficult burden to bear. And what really matters is staying healthy and getting ready for tough games in the postseason, where there are no nights off.

Still, the concept of fans missing out when star players sit is very real. It’s just a matter of deciding how significant a factor that should be to an opposing team doing what’s best for business. When fans shell out money for tickets they want to see the best product possible, even if a full Cavaliers lineup likely rolls the hometown Grizzlies for the second time in two nights.

But how much does a visiting team really owe fans in a rarely visited city? Slam contributing editor Ryan Jones had an interesting idea to battle this feeling of missing out.

Making a rule like this would take the NBA admitting that it’s more an entertainment product than competitive league. Which, you know, it sort of is. The Association has embraced the power of its superstars and marketed itself accordingly to great success. But it’s difficult to legislate punishment for coaches making tactical decisions they feel will benefit a franchise in the near future. And even then, how do you decide how many “good” players a team sits out before they’ve crossed the line? It’s a messy argument to start and all but impossible to find a satisfying answer.

It’s fitting that James and Co. sat on the same night the NBA and its Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. We’ll see if the new CBA has any language in it about players getting rest days. But even if something is defined, how much effort should be made to “make good” on players getting a game off here and there? How many Memphis-born babies would Cavs players in street clothes have to kiss to call this one even?

Until that’s settled on paper, we’ll continue to have these arguments walking the blurry line of what fans deserve and what’s best for players. Maybe it’s something fun to spice up a pre-Christmas hoops season that’s felt pretty ordinary thus far. Because if you just look at the numbers, the story is simple: 17,449 fans filed in to FedEx Forum and saw an 8-point win from the hometown team.

Doesn’t seem the like the worst night to be a Grizzlies fan if you ask me.