Load Management: Analyzing the NBA’s most in-depth issue in decades

Call it “load management,” “rest” or “soreness,” but NBA starters and veterans are being held out of games more often and earlier in the season for precautionary measures than ever before.

Why? And how big of an issue is this?

The NBA is the rare sport where individual players have larger fan bases than the franchises themselves. It has been a business model the NBA invented and perfected since the 1980’s with Magic and Bird.

That is why load management is the single most problematic issue the league has faced since the malice at the palace.

Among the league’s All-Stars, only Anthony Edwards (zero), Julius Randle(zero), Domantas Sabonis (two), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (four) and Jayson Tatum (four) had missed fewer than five games this season. That means most of the sport’s best players had missed at least 9 percent of the games, and in many, many cases (like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson — those names big enough for you?), the percentage was much, much higher.

I wasn’t even counting Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis, two perennial All-Stars who’ve been ravaged by injury and/or injury prevention, knocking them out of a dizzying amount of games. This was a problem last season too: hundreds of games missed by players with maybe more than 50 All-Star appearances between them.’

Is load management solely responsible for this phenomenon? Of course not, but it is a factor. And it exacerbates the overall problem (which, I get it, may sound counterintuitive – load management is meant to prevent further injury) because fans tuning into the average national TV game, or worse, who paid for the tickets, are already asked to accept the days and weeks of their favorite player being out because they’re actually hurt. It’s plain painful when, on top of this epidemic of top players being injured, the paying customer is also asked to accept players simply not playing because … just in case?

Players turned media members like JJ Reddick have mentioned that the higher paced, perimeter centric game has taken a toll on players bodies more so than previous generations that played a stagnant, albeit rougher game.

Combine the years of wear and tear that gets put onto young players via the AAU system before even stepping foot onto a NBA or even College court, the body will break down eventually.

The de-emphasizing of being multi-sport athletes through high school, forcing players to concentrate solely on playing basketball, which overworks the same joints and muscles that otherwise could catch a break while kids play something else with less torque, like baseball or other sports; adds onto the body wear and tear.

So teams want to protect their half a billion dollar assets and are using load management as the new tactic.

I don’t see any arguments for rushing players back from injuries, or wanting to see players play through injuries.

Of course their minutes can and should be monitored as they work their way back into the lineup.

And older players shouldn’t be expected to play all 82 games, although it would be nice to see every moment of legends careers as they wind down.

But I want to know where in the analytical world we live in does it show that load management actually works?

Players seem to get hurt more often and sustain long term injuries more frequently than in the past.

There’s a whole annual sports conference up in Boston dedicated to the Next, Shiniest New Stat! Where’s the corresponding, “This proves that load management works” metric? The evidence that holding Players X and Y out of games on a regular basis over the last three years has made Players X and Y more efficient by Z percent?

Obviously, those answers can be and are proprietary to individual teams. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is among the few who has spoken openly about how the numbers among Warriors players are impacted positively when they’re given a night or two off. But the lack of clear data league wide makes it harder to make the case that load management works.

The league has to notice this is a problem, even the players, all-star level players past and present have be vocal about their displeasure with load management.

Barkley’s frustration might be targeted toward the players but this is just as much of a front office led issue as it is players just not wanting to play. Cj McCollum said on a podcast that NBA teams have scheduled rest days for players before the season even begins. This is systemically thought out, something above the players sometimes.

For far too long, the head coaches who are tasked with addressing the puzzling absences of prominent players have, in essence, said, “Trust us, we have all sorts of valid reasons to be making this choice.”

Find a way to pull the curtain back on the rationale while educating the audience along the way, and you might earn a little more patience from the frustrated viewers and media members who often find it all so unreasonable. It seems like we’ve seen an uptick in this department recently.

To cite one example, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham went to great lengths to explain Anthony Davis’ absence before Wednesday’s game at Oklahoma City that was described as “precautionary” (it was related to the right foot injury that cost him significant time earlier in the season). Beyond the medical insight that was shared, Ham’s choice to make it clear that Davis was “frustrated as hell” because he didn’t play was the kind of thing that should be shared more.

Conversely, there was no such explanation when Portland’s Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant were held out of a Feb. 23 game at Sacramento because of the severe travel delays leading up to the Trail Blazers’ arrival. The optics were awful for a team that claims to be making a playoff push.

Almost every Blazer’s fan in attendance had a Lillard jersey. And I bet a lot of Kings fans wanted to see Lillard play too. He is a walking box office ticket who dropped 71 a few nights later.

Fans should be paying the full freight of their costly tickets when they didn’t see what or who they came to see.

At the very least, let fans know the vast majority of these players truly care about being out there. Like it or not, a whole lot of folks suspect players simply don’t want to play in all 82 games and, thus, have decided to sit out whenever they see fit under the cloak of load management. Add in the fact that we now have stars making nearly $50 million per season, and it’s not hard to understand the lack of sympathy that is so pervasive in the public discourse. So if it’s true — as Steph Curry said recently — that the players are often following the directives handed down from the teams, then it would help to be as transparent as possible about that key factor as well.

This brings us to another aspect of this discussion: the scheduling.

This is a familiar focal point for folks on the team side, and it’s a fair gripe. The answers aren’t easy, but let’s start here: For the love of NBA schedule guru Evan Wasch, there just has to be a way to schedule national TV games in a way that steers clear of any and all load management obstacles. I’m trying to set a low bar here in terms of all these suggestions, but those games need to be treated as sacred by the league, teams and players alike. It’s just not acceptable that the league so routinely promotes one particular matchup, with a collection of all the elite talent therein, only to deliver something that falls woefully short of expectations.

I will say, however, that basketball isn’t the only sport doing this stuff. Elite soccer teams, in particular, regularly sit out their top players (they call it “rotation”) rather than have them play every match. Baseball has been cutting back on pitchers’ usage — both by decreasing the number of innings per start and increasing the days of rest between starts — for decades now, and it is still trending that way.

The reality is, across all these sports, injury rates are going up rather than down, and overuse is a real problem that in many cases is too late-stage for a pro team to stop.

And, of course, every situation and athlete is different. Asking a 38-year-old LeBron James to play every game is different from asking the same of a 24-year-old Luka Dončić. Asking P.J. Tucker to stand in the corner on offense for 40 minutes is different from asking James Harden to do the same while orchestrating every play.

The reason it is a massive issue for the NBA dates back to what I stated earlier; it is a league built on star power and highlights. If the stars are not playing, fan interest is down. It is a national sport, not a local one. People pay to see the very best and tune into ESPN and TNT to see the games best.

Revenue and ratings are great, but if these load management trends continue at high rates, you will see dips in both revenue and viewership throughout the regular season.


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