Imagine you are the father of a 10-year-old basketball fan. Living in South Florida, your son idolizes LeBron James and wears his jersey constantly. You pay top dollar for tickets to the Heat’s upcoming showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. After all, it will be your son’s first chance to watch his hero in person.

When you arrive, you are stunned to see a Spurs team without Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Instead, the starting lineup features Nando de Colo. Who?

By now most of you know this story. The game against the Heat would be the Spurs fourth road game in five nights. A battle with then league-leading (and division rival) Memphis Grizzlies would follow two nights later. Coach Gregg Popovich decided to send his four best players home rather than travel to Miami. Combined with the absence of two other key players out with injuries, fans at the American Airlines Arena and millions watching on TNT saw a San Antonio team without its six best players.

Basketball practiceEven before the game tipped off, NBA commissioner David Stern vowed to deliver “substantial sanctions.” He fined the team $250,000, arguing, “…the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban defended the fine. While calling Popovich “the best coach in the league,” he criticized the Spurs for resting its best players for a high-profile television game.

The NBA currently makes $930 million per year through its television contracts with ESPN and TNT alone. Cuban calls those contracts “the money train” for the NBA and the key to the league being profitable. “I understand why the league (fined the Spurs). It maybe should have been even higher, because the amount at stake is enormous.”

Reacting to the fine handed down by the NBA, Popovich explained, “What I do from my perspective is from a coaching perspective. And I think the league operates from a business perspective. And I think that’s reflective in the action that they took.”

The Spurs have a well-known history of strategically resting its players. Since Popovich became head coach, the Spurs have won four NBA titles and more games than any other NBA team.

Also listen:
Episode 41 of The Dr. David Geier Show: Schedules and injuries in professional athetes (discussion starts at 3:51)

As a sports fan myself, I sympathize with those who spend their hard-earned money to watch their favorite players in action. Even Popovich understands. In response to a letter he received from a fan after he held out Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili from a game in Portland, he wrote back, “‘If I was in your position, I would write the same letter. I agree with you totally. You’re right. But my priorities are different than yours.”

As a team doctor, though, I see how long seasons and frequent travel take tremendous tolls on athletes’ bodies in all sports. I often hear players at the Family Circle Cup talk about how exhausted they are traveling to different cities and countries week after week. Tennis has tried to adjust its tournament schedules in recent years to better preserve the health of the players.

Soccer player stretching with athletic trainerResting players is common practice in other sports with long seasons, even here in Charleston. For a road trip with games on consecutive nights, Charleston Battery coach Mike Anheuser frequently starts his best players for the more important game of the two and mostly reserves in the lesser game. Occasionally veteran players don’t make the road trip at all.

I mention that practice not to criticize Anheuser but actually to commend him. Strategic rest over the course of a long season can help keep athletes at their best late in the season. Plus it might prevent injuries.

A 2010 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at professional soccer players from a top-level team participating in the UEFA Champions League. The authors compared the injury rates of athletes playing either one or two games per week. They found that the group of elite male soccer players who played in two matches per week had an overall injury rate six times higher than the group playing one match per week. Their rate of overuse injury was double that of the single-match athletes. Reinjuries were more common. And 83% of the injuries classified as major occurred in the group who played two matches per week.

The Dr. David Geier ShowGregg Popovich rests his star players, receives fine from NBA: That’s Gotta Hurt segment from Episode 68 of The Dr. David Geier Show.

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Rather than punishing a team for resting players, leagues should consider options to decrease wear and tear on the athletes. Shortening the seasons would be one option, but it seems the least likely to occur. Fewer games could mean fewer tickets to sell and lower television contracts. In fact, rather than shortening its season, the NFL has actually considered extending it by two games.

If shortening the season isn’t an option, then maybe the leagues can shorten the road trips of the teams or space out games for the teams traveling. If marquee television matchups are important, possibly schedule them so that they occur at the beginning of a road trip or with a few days of rest before that game.

I realize the importance of television contracts and corporate sponsors for the financial viability of sports leagues. And I definitely sympathize with fans who pay to see the athletes play. But as a sports medicine surgeon, I believe rested athletes would perform better on the field or court. And hopefully they would stay out of the operating room.

Do you think the NBA was correct to fine the Spurs and Popovich? Was Popovich right to rest his players for a prominent television matchup? Share your opinion below!

Note: This post appears in a modified form as my sports medicine column in the December 13, 2012 issue of The Post and Courier.