To rest or not to rest. That is the question of the season in the NBA, and it’s generating endless discord between players, fans and league executives. Players in today’s NBA believe resting on some nights can better prepare their bodies for a long playoff run, and most coaches of contenders are using that strategy more and more. Fans, meanwhile, are rightfully upset when they pay good money to see their favorite team only to find out the biggest stars are sitting out to rest. This conundrum has reached a boiling point, and folks are wondering if the league should shorten its 82-game season to squash this problem.
But it wasn’t always a problem. Former NBA players who now wear suits and microphones and talk hoops on studio sets are recalling their heyday when playing 82 games was a badge of honor rather than something to complain about. Former Bulls champion and Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman just threw his hat in the ring. Unlike some of his competitors of the ’80s and ’90s, The Worm didn’t sugarcoat anything about his take. Instead, he called out LeBron James – unquestionably the game’s biggest star for the last 10 years – in a recent interview with CBS Sports.
“You know what, LeBron’s doing one thing that I always said that Michael Jordan never did. He never rested. He played every game. LeBron has the position to do this now, because they need him. The league needs him, and that’s why he’s doing all this crazy shit now, like bitching and complaining and all this bullshit.” – Dennis Rodman
Rodman’s never been a fan of censorship, so these words shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. And while he might not be the most eloquent public speaker, the rebounding legend has an irrefutable point.
Coming At The King
LeBron James didn’t start this whole idea of resting when healthy. Gregg Popovich has used this tactic with his aging cast of stars in San Antonio for years. But James is the face of the league, not Pop. He’s the biggest star, so he deservedly draws the most attention. Even though several teams (including the showtime Warriors) are resting star players down the stretch, LeBron will take the brunt of the criticism. That’s just how it works.
But the crux of Rodman’s argument is simple. If you’re comparing the game’s greats, this new fad of players resting must be a factor in any comparison, and it will always give Jordan the edge over James.
Iron Mike vs The King
No, we’re not talking Ditka. The real Iron Mike in Chicago was and always will be Jordan. The GOAT played all 82 games in 8 of his 11 full seasons with the Bulls. (He missed most of the ’85-86 season with a broken foot and played just 17 games in ’94-95 after making his first comeback.) But eight of the full eleven, he didn’t miss a game. That’s insane. Even crazier is to realize that 3 of those 82-game marathons came during the second threepeat when Jordan was 32-34 years of age. In the three full seasons Jordan did not play all 82, he missed a combined 7 games. That’s it.
Now let’s look at LeBron. Nearly finished with his 14th season, King James has never played a full 82 games. While he does deserve credit for his overall durability (he’s never missed extended time or a full season for any injury) he still can’t even boast a single 82-game season on his record. Jordan wins 9-0 in that department if you include his final season with the Wizards. Assuming James plays every game on Cleveland’s remaining schedule this season, he will have missed a combined 68 games over his 14 seasons.
For perspective, that’s averaging 76.7 games played per 82-game season (and yes, I did factor in the lockout-shortened season of ’11-12.) Again, that’s a pretty impressive number for a 14-year career as one of the league’s best. But it’s not better than Jordan’s average of 81.4 games played in his 11 full seasons in Chicago.
Minutes Count Too
What’s the next logical argument for LeBron’s defenders in this argument? He has more miles on his legs than the average 32 year old in the NBA, because he entered the league at 18. He’s also played heavy minutes in the regular season and made deep playoff runs in most of them. Those minutes add up.
While this is true, it’s not like LeBron plays more minutes than Jordan did on a nightly basis. Not counting the 18 games he played on a minutes restriction after returning from the broken foot in ’86, Jordan averaged 38.9 minutes per game in his Bulls career. LeBron’s current career minutes average? An identical 38.9 minutes per game.
To be fair, let’s factor in LeBron’s early entry into the league by adding two years to his actual age when comparing him to Jordan. The GOAT was 32, 33 and 34 years old during the threepeat of ’96-98. He averaged 38.1 minutes per game across those seasons. LeBron’s (age-adjusted) matching seasons are 2014-15, ’15-16 and this season. In those three seasons, James is averaging just 36.4 minutes per contest. And remember, LeBron missed 25 games in those three seasons. Jordan missed zero in the equivalent span.
Different Time, Different Game
Another argument that Rodman astutely makes when comparing LeBron’s days off to Jordan’s stellar attendance record is the style of game in the NBA during their respective generations.
“Back then, when [Jordan] was getting his ass whupped, I mean beat down every game, and then when he played against us [the Pistons], he said — guess what — ‘I gotta go back in the gym.’ And he got tough. He got tough, and he got great. And greater. So that’s it.” – Dennis Rodman
The NBA of the ’80s and ’90s was undeniably much more physical than today’s game. This isn’t some stereotypical old grump-speak of, “back in my day…blah blah…these kids today are so soft…blah blah.” No. It’s true. The physicality of the older generations was brutal. Flagrant fouls in today’s NBA were common fouls back then. Elite scorers like Jordan would get absolutely hammered when they dared drive down the lane. Whether it was Rodman and his Bad Boy Pistons in the ’80s and early ’90s, or the hard-hitting Knicks and Pacers of the mid-late ’90s, Jordan took beating after beating.
LeBron often complains about getting unfair treatment from the officials. He argues that because of his size and strength, they often don’t call fouls when players hit LeBron because he can muscle through them. There is some truth to that, but LeBron doesn’t deal with half of the hard hits Jordan took. When you factor that into the resting debate, Jordan matching or exceeding LeBron’s durability is all the more impressive.
The Big Difference
You can compare MJ’s stats to LeBron’s until the cows come home. Given the longevity of James’ career and Michael’s foray into baseball, James is likely to pass Michael in most individual statistical categories. But when focusing on this current debate of whether or not players should rest – or be criticized for it – Jordan will always top James.
Here’s what LeBron had to say recently on the issue of modern NBA players resting:
“It’s a long, strenuous season and the NBA does a great job of putting the schedule together as best as they can. You’re going to have back-to-backs. You’re going to have certain games where certain things fall on certain nights, but a coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game.” – LeBron James
First of all, James tries to put this resting issue on the coaches. That’s nonsense. Everyone knows that when LeBron takes a night off, it’s his decision. The “DNP-CD”s that appear frequently next to his name in the box score should really say “DNP-LD”, as in “Lebron’s Decision.” By focusing on his coach‘s job, LeBron is directing attention away from the fact that he’s making the decision to take nights off from doing his job.
This is what it all comes down to. This is what will always separate Jordan and LeBron. MJ had a “love of the game” clause in his NBA contracts, which allowed him to play basketball anytime, anywhere. He didn’t just want to win NBA titles, he wanted to win every single game he played. Regular season, playoffs, scrimmage at practice, pickup game on the Warner Bros lot between shooting scenes of Space Jam. All of them. Jordan’s intense desire to be the best and win the most was and still is unparalleled by any NBA player in history.
LeBron is on record – during one of his many trips to the NBA Finals, no less – saying, “it’s just basketball.” He may profess his love for the game, but it will never match that of the GOAT he’s chasing. If LeBron loved the game as much as Jordan did, he wouldn’t regularly take nights off. He couldn’t. Michael fought like hell to come back early from his broken foot, and then fought the organization’s minutes restriction. When the front office tried to explain that the minutes restriction was about protecting Jordan’s health for the future, he couldn’t look that far ahead. He wanted to win the next game. He played through aches, bumps and bruised bones. He played through illness. (Pour one out for the Flu Game.) The GOAT did all of that because that’s how much he loved winning and basketball.
LeBron just doesn’t love the game (or winning) that much. The unquenchable desire to win made Jordan who he was. That mental edge is one he’ll always hold over LeBron, and we may never see that level of competitive insanity again. If anyone came close, it was Kobe. It’s the underlying factor in the debate about whether or not players should rest, and whether or not anyone will ever be able to say they were as good or better than Jordan. Which players love playing and winning so much that rest doesn’t even cross their mind?
Dennis Rodman may be crazy, but he’s 100% correct about this debate and the numbers are there to prove it. LeBron rests when he wants to, or feels like he needs to. Jordan never did.
“So that’s it.”