How NBA Players Get Rest In An 82-Game Season

At the end of a long season, a team's games are even more important. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with Slate.com's Mike Pesca about how teams strategize about players' performances.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Time to talk sports and time to talk rest because it can be a challenge for any of us to make sure we unplug so we can recharge. Professional athletes are no different. The day in, day out grind of a season can take a toll on individual players and can make or break a team's season. But what is the best way to keep a team rested and performing at its best? To find out, we are joined by Slate.com's Mike Pesca who needs no rest. He is working the story at every angle, every hour of the day. He joins us now. Hi.

MIKE PESCA: Sorry. I just dozed off there for a second. How're you doing?

MARTIN: (Laughing) I'm good. So - resting.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: This - you say...

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is kind of overlooked. And important when it comes to sports.

PESCA: I think it's a little like music, where a rest really makes the rest of the music be heard and it's written right into the - into the composition.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

PESCA: And that's how - and yeah, great analogy - and that's how - and that's how it is with sports. I mean, obviously you get days off, but teams know that the health of their players - I mean, we're talking about million, multimillion-dollar investments. And if you look at the sport of baseball - I mean, they are having just a spate of injuries, especially a spate of arm injuries among pitchers. And there's really no real consensus as to how to cure it.

You know, the pitchers of today put so much stress on their arms with sliders and fastballs - nothing like what it was 20, 30 years ago. And so the way of combating this - to a lot of people - is what's called a pitch count. Don't let pitchers pitch over a hundred, hundred-five...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: ...Pitches in a game. But even that - you know, there's another school of thought. And I actually don't agree with the second school of thought, but Nolan Ryan does. He says we baby our pitchers. They need to pitch more. So there are these injuries. There's no real - there's no real consensus on how to stop it. And you know, maybe we should let them rest more. Maybe we should give them more days off between pitches. It's really hurting the sport.

MARTIN: So even I - I'm not a big baseball fan, but I understand that it's part of the culture...

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That you rest professional baseball players...

PESCA: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Because their arms get tired, like you just said. But what about other sports, specifically basketball? That's not part of how that game is played...

PESCA: Right.

MARTIN: ...At least typically.

PESCA: Right, right. The great superstars - you know, it's seeing if you can play the most minutes. If you can lead the league in minutes, you're helping your team. And maybe you are. And if you look at LeBron James, who's averaging 38 minutes - you know, he's not a young guy by regular human standards.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

PESCA: But - I mean, he's not a old guy - but by basketball standards, he certainly is. And I think that that could be a problem for his team, the Miami Heat. And the San Antonio Spurs - coached by Gregg Popovich - have really taken on this issue. And if you look at their roster, there is not one player on the team who averages more than 30 minutes a game. You know? So there's not one guy who averages in - within 10, 11 minutes of the league leader. And we're not just talking about the old players. Every one - if you know the Spurs, you're like, oh, that makes sense for Tim Duncan.

We're talking about young, healthy guys, like Kawhi Leonard. And I - to win the playoffs, you have to win 16 games and you might play 25 games. And I think Popovich looks at the 82 games of the regular season and he says, you know what we've got to do? We've got to get in the playoffs, maybe get a good seed. They are the number one seed. But really the most important thing is the postseason. And so he'll do things like not even have his guys travel to away games and that gets a lot of attention.

But it's the day in, day out games where the players sit as much as any team in the league - I think - that could redound to his benefit in the playoffs.

MARTIN: I like it. He's in for the long-term investment.

PESCA: That's right.

MARTIN: So you got a curveball?

PESCA: I do. Let's talk glutes.

MARTIN: Let's.

PESCA: Pull up a chair.

MARTIN: Really? OK.

PESCA: Turn down - maybe turn down the radio if the kids are in the car. No, don't. So in major league baseball, it is a common injury. A glute - the gluteal muscle - the gluteus maximus is part of the lower trunk. And yet guys claim never to hurt their glutes when, in fact, they do. There was a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, Nate Jones, and he went on the D.L., the disabled list...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: ...With a glute injury.

MARTIN: OK.

PESCA: I said to myself, this is unusual. I looked at all the stats. There hasn't been a glute injury for three years in baseball.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

PESCA: I said, this cannot be. It's that people are afraid of owning up to their glute injuries. And wouldn't you know it - just in the last couple weeks, the White Sox reclassified Jones's injury as a hip or perhaps a lower back injury. And I say, own your glutes.

MARTIN: He hurt his bum.

PESCA: (Laughing).

MARTIN: OK. Mike Pesca of Slate.com. You can hear him every week on their "Hang Up and Listen" podcast. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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