Hawks Trying Spurs’ “Healthy Rest” Strategy

Former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer is using a famously controversial tactic in Atlanta and it’s working.

Joel Brigham profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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There’s this thing that Gregg Popovich does in San Antonio where he’ll sit perfectly healthy players just to get them some rest in the middle of a long and grueling NBA season and give some significant minutes to their back-ups. While there has been plenty of debate about whether fans should be asked to spend money on games in which their favorite players, perfectly healthy, will not be playing, there really isn’t anybody arguing the effectiveness of giving big-minute guys a day off of work.

After all, the Spurs keep making the playoffs (and having success once they get there) despite a lineup that features some very important players that are, frankly, past their prime as NBA stars. It’s a technique that could do some organizations a whole lot of good. In fact, somebody should tell Tom Thibodeau all about it.

Former Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer, who is now the head coach for the East-leading Atlanta Hawks, doesn’t need to be told about this strategy. He knows all about it and is now employing it about halfway through this stellar season with the Hawks.

In the last week, Budenholzer made the decision to sit Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap against the Phladelphia 76ers on January 13, Al Horford and Kyle Korver against the Boston Celtics on January 14 and then Pero Antic and Dennis Schroder on Saturday against the Chicago Bulls.

They didn’t lose any of those games.

“I think every team in the league is trying to figure out ways to maybe be proactive and aggressive and figure out how to keep our players in a productive healthy state, just prioritizing our players’ health,” Budenholzer said.

“Obviously the Spurs have done it for a long time and have done it well, and being there I got to see first-hand the positives, not just for the team but for the individuals and how it helped them through a season and helped them through their careers. I think the NBA is trying to figure out ways to keep a great product on the court and keep our players in a healthy place, so I think all of us are working on it.”

Hawks players, while reticent to shelve their competitive spirits for even a single game, seem to understand the benefits of this strategy.

“Me being a player and the guy that I am, I was opposed to it at first,” Millsap said of resting. “But sitting and understanding what comes with that, there are a lot of advantages with that. With this being a long season, resting guys, and also having confidence in our bench and guys coming in and stepping up for us, it works in different aspects and we understand that.”

Of course, he said all of this with a look on his face that suggested he was just saying what he knew he was supposed to say. He didn’t want to sit out that game and clearly wasn’t looking forward to the possibility of sitting again sometime down the road.

Teague had the exact same look on his face when he answered the same series of questions.

“It’s whatever coach wants to do,” Teague said. “He’s running the ship and we just follow his lead. He thinks it’s best for our team when guys get some rest and other guys get an opportunity to step up and help our team get better, so I’m all for it.”

And that’s the advantage to this strategy so often ignored. Non-starters and non-rotation guys are given an opportunity to step into bigger roles, preparing them should they be needed down the road. Fortunately for the Hawks, finding players to step up has not been a problem throughout their current 12-game winning streak.

“The good thing about this team is we seem to have guys stepping up every night,” Al Horford said “We have seen that these past two games, and we feel like we are growing as a team.

“I’m all for the betterment of the team. We don’t necessarily like sitting out, but I feel like it was the right thing.”

Teague agreed that the sitting and watching, as well as the break from routine and ritual, is the hardest part of Coach Budenholzer’s rest strategy to deal with.

“I’m one of those guys that like to do the same thing every game,” Teague said. “But it works for our team and it works for [Coach Budenholzer], so whatever we can do to help our team get better and give guys an opportunity to get some playing time that we are going to need down the road.”

Millsap and Horford both echoed those sentiments, agreeing that a change in routine when healthy is an odd sensation that messes with their daily rituals, but clearly it hasn’t effected them negatively as none of these guys have missed a beat upon their return from their games off.

It’s something that has paid off for the Spurs for years, and it looks like Budenholzer is spreading the strategy to Atlanta now, too. The only real question left at this point is, when will it be Thabo Sefolosha’s turn to rest a game?

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Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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