NBA protecting its marquee games with latest schedule tweaks

Remember when LeBron James sipped coffee on the bench during his night off on national television against the LA Clippers? Or how about when Steve Kerr gave healthy scratches to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on ABC against the San Antonio Spurs back in March?

The league remembers.

Back in April, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated "there is no more important issue in the league" than healthy scratches during marquee games. As was unveiled in the schedule release on Monday, the league has put on the full-court press to end the scourge for good.

Responding to a record number of missed games due to rest last season -- ballooning to more than 200 instances by the tally of InStreetClothes.com injury tracker Jeff Stotts -- the NBA decided to cut back on preseason and start the regular season a week earlier, beginning Oct. 17 as opposed to last season's Oct. 25 start.

The upshot? The number of back-to-backs have been snipped from 16.3 per team last season to 14.4, marking a record-low for the NBA for the third straight season. Teams can also rest easy knowing that the dreaded four-in-five -- a staple of NBA schedules for decades -- is history.

There were 70 such stretches as recently as 2014-15, but the latest expanded schedule has zero on the calendar. For teams looking to survive the regular season with its stars healthy and fresh for the postseason, that's an enormous victory.

Make no mistake about it: The biggest difference this season is the safeguarding of nationally televised games. The league protected 22 marquee national TV games so that neither team is playing in a back-to-back, four-in-five, five-in-seven or traveling more than 3,500 miles in the week leading up to the game. It's a dramatic shift for the league.

Consider that last season, the Warriors played four of their five ABC games in a back-to-back. This season? Zero of its six ABC games are in a back-to-back set. In fact, no team in an ABC game will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back. For the Cavs, just two of their 27 national TV games are on the second night of a back-to-back, a third of their total last season.

After a season marked by historic levels of both triple-doubles and DNP-Rests, the league means business. But can it backfire?

The teams' take on the schedule

What's creating more buzz among team executives is how the league plans to police DNP-Rests at the league level. Team executives confirmed a USA TODAY report last week that owners are expected to accept new rules soon to penalize and manage excessive player-resting strategies. Silver has made it known that he'd prefer teams not rest multiple stars at once, and if they do take a night off, that they do it at home where fans have multiple opportunities to see those big-ticket stars.

That's fair. But such punishments and regulations worry several trainers, sports science personnel and execs who spoke to ESPN.com. In their eyes, the league should be applauded for injecting more days off into the schedule and recognizing the need to promote player health above all else.

But legislating health management outside the trainer's room from the New York offices is tricky terrain. No one understands the medical needs of players more than the doctors, coaches and trainers themselves, who often spend more time with players than their own families. Staffs give players the night off for a very sound reason: It protects players against injury that could torpedo their season or, worse, the entire franchise (see: Derrick Rose and the Bulls).

What gets lost in the DNP-Rest outrage is that the league just watched its healthiest season in more than a decade. According to a comprehensive study by InStreetClothes.com, the NBA registered the fewest games lost due to injury since 2005-06. Teams are proud of that figure, even if it came with record-shattering levels of healthy scratches (and even if you count the DNP-Rests as injuries, the 2016-17 season saw a remarkably clean bill of health).

Therein lies the contradiction: Should the league punish teams for protecting its players from injury? But rather than force trainers to make the rest call, the league is doing it for them.

The league's analytical push

It seems that Silver himself is fully aware of the value of DNP-Rests as a strategy. The commissioner has on multiple occasions admitted that there is a link between fatigue and injury. Ahead of the 2017 Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers, two teams that garnered more rest-related headlines than any other, Silver defended the practice of injury prevention through strategic rest.

"And I would also say back to those fans," Silver said addressing the audience outcry regarding DNP-Rests, "that here we are going into the Finals with a No. 1 seed in the West, No. 2 seed in the East, two teams that obviously had tremendous regular seasons, and every player is healthy.

"So I don't necessarily think the fan benefits somehow if the league could require a player who wasn't injured but was banged-up to play in a game when the trainers felt that player needed rest. I don't think the fan benefits by requiring that player to play and then that player getting injured."

It's clear the league is taking the matter into its own hands. For three decades, the league employed Senior Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations Matt Winick to do the schedule by hand. But in 2015, the league decided to bring the process into the 21st century as it looked to eradicate nasty four-in-five and back-to-back sets.

"It's truly insane. This is the worst stretch of schedule that I've ever been a part of."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on Golden State's brutal two-week stretch late in the 2016-17 season

Led by Evan Wasch, the NBA's senior vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, and Tom Carelli, the NBA's senior vice president of broadcasting, the league optimized its schedule with computer software to reduce inefficiencies in the 1,230-game slate.

The improvements are everywhere. For instance, there will be 17 games on ABC this season and none of the teams will be on a second game of a back-to-back when they play them. When Kerr rested his stars against the Spurs on Mar. 11, it was the second night of a back-to-back. Not only that, the team had traveled to eight cities for nine games over a two-week span.

"It's truly insane," Kerr said ahead of the game. "This is the worst stretch of schedule that I've ever been a part of."

The schedule-makers agreed. There are no such stretches in the schedule for the Warriors, or any other team. Ahead of the 2014-15 season, we highlighted the 10 most exhausting four-in-five trips in the NBA schedule.

Three years later with analytical software in hand, not a single one remains on the schedule. Kudos to the NBA.

The end of DNP-Rest?

Some team executives don't expect much to change next season. They're skeptical that the new rules regarding DNP-Rests will have the intended effect. Sure, DNP-Rest numbers may go down, but the use of strategic rest will likely remain the same.

How? Multiple teams suggested this scenario: If a team needs to rest a couple players during a marquee game to prevent fatigue-related injuries, the front office could simply list a dummy injury to avoid getting punished. The number of reported DNP-Rests will be "way fewer for that reason," said one long-time NBA GM.

We laughed when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA's pioneer of resting stars to keep them healthy, listed Tim Duncan as "DNP-Old" in a box score. But if Curry needs a night off during a long road trip with multiple back-to-backs, there's little to stop the Warriors from citing "back soreness" or "Achilles tendinitis" in the injury report. Such practice wouldn't be new. In previous eras, team training staffs often listed bogus or injuries to keep players on the injury list without having to waive them.

While fans circle the calendar for blockbuster matchups these days, execs and coaches are circling their own dates -- but for potential rest days in the schedule. Even with the new tweaks to the schedule, teams are still using the next month to plan when their DNP-Rest days.

"I'm looking for games," one top executive told ESPN.com on Monday night, "where we could sit guys if needed."

The league is quick to note that this schedule is not perfect. Consider the Houston Rockets playing the Golden State Warriors on TNT on Jan. 4. For the Rockets, it will be the second night of a back-to-back and the fifth game in seven nights -- through the New Year's holiday. It's not an ideal scenario for perhaps the most-anticipated West matchup of the season. When you schedule 82 games over 176 days, these sort of rough patches are inevitable, even with the extra week built in.

The Rockets will be a fascinating team to watch with regard to how they handle rest days for Harden and Chris Paul this regular season. The team wants to legitimize itself as a true championship contender. Can it do that while trying to play the duo all 82 games? Harden found out the hard way, only taking one game off the entire 2016-17 season and flaming out against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.

Moreover, it's hard to imagine a player who has been more doomed by postseason injury to himself or a teammate than Paul.

All told, the expectation around the league is that the DNP-Rest will continue to be a weapon for teams to combat the NBA season. After all, there are more than 400 back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, and until that number falls to zero, teams will pull their players on occasion when their diagnostics say so.

The marquee teams will still prioritize health in the regular season for the championship hunt as fans and media howl about rings and legacy. That likely won't change. But it doesn't mean the NBA can't do something about it. DNP-Rests aren't going away. But the less talk about stars sitting is a good thing.