LOAD MANAGEMENT, IS IT A PROBLEM?
Updated: Jan 29
This article was originally published on November 13th, 2019.
In the NBA there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers' small forward Kawhi Leonard (@kawhileonard) because he is once again doing something that has raised some tricky questions for the league.
The term "load management" is not a new term to be associated with Leonard, having been rested for 22 games as he worked his way back from the quad injury last season.
Leonard then topped the NBA in minutes in the playoffs and led the Raptors to a championship, which many believed was the Raptors' plan to success.
Basically, the load management concept offers a player to sit out regular-season games, so that he can be healthier in the playoffs and potentially extend their career.
Rest has been a hot-button topic in the NBA for years. In 2012, the NBA fined the San Antonio Spurs for sending home their star players without proper notice before a high-profile game against the Miami Heat.
In 2017, the issue was inflamed when the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers sat their star players for nationally televised games in back-to-back weeks.
Leonard's early-season resting was described by ESPN's Doris Burke (@heydb) as "ridiculous," going as far as to say that the NBA has a problem on its hands.
Potential the NBA does have a problem as it is unfair for fans to pay so much money to attend games and broadcast networks paying for the game, to miss out on some of the league's biggest stars.
ESPN's Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) argued on "The Jump" that the league shouldn't allow players to simply rest if they're healthy. Nichols argued, "Because if it's just rest, then why are we having an 82-game season?"
However, many have come out to defend Leonard and the Clippers. The NBA said the Clippers informed the league of the decision to sit Leonard and that Leonard qualified as an injured player.
"Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league's resting policy," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement. "And, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA's director of sports medicine is comfortable with the team medical staff's determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time."
Doc Rivers would go on to add also"But he feels great because of what we've been doing and we're just going to continue to do it," the coach said. "There's no concern here." The Clippers would then go on to receive a $50,000 fine for Rivers' comments, due to inconsistent messaging.
Many further argued that the Raptors' success last season was proof that Leonard should stick to his plan and more teams should adopt it.
John Hollinger, a former executive with the Memphis Grizzlies, wrote on The Athletic that teams have "grudgingly" adopted load management because "the evidence from medical and training staffs became overwhelming that it was a better way to manage a basketball team."
Although data appears to support the concept of load management, it's unlikely to make the issue go away.
In 2017, Commissioner Adam Silver noted that there is a scientific argument for resting players.
"We also have to be realistic that the science has gotten to the point where there is that direct correlation that we're aware of between fatigue and injuries," Silver said. "And as tough as it is on our fans to miss one of their favorite players for a game, it's far better than having them get injured and be out for long periods of time."
Within that statement, Silver appears to have admitted that the NBA's biggest problem is its schedule.
There have been near-constant calls in recent years to re-examine the NBA's 82-game schedule.
With many of the coaches who have practiced load management coming from championship-contending teams, it has become obvious that they are willing to take a loss to keep a star player healthy. Therefore, the logical conclusion is if a loss is not enough to deter a coach from practicing load management, a single game does not have enough value in the 82-game schedule.
However, reducing the schedule, which some think would allow players more rest and create more meaningful games, would also mean reducing revenues, which makes it likely a non-starter with owners and many players.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) pointed out that the league’s best players have already taken matters in their owns hands and reduced the schedule with rest. If players want to increase their chances to be healthy in the postseason, they’ll take some nights off from November to March.
There have been calls to eliminate all back-to-backs, but it's likely not a feasible option. The NBA has worked to decrease the number of back-to-backs, but eliminating them altogether would mean further stretching a regular season that already runs from October to April.
ESPN's Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) detailed in length in his 'Under the knife: Exposing America's youth basketball crisis' report, the growing concern about the damage being done to teenage basketball players.
Holmes reported that those involved in all levels of basketball, from high school to college to the NBA, have found players' bodies are breaking down at a younger age, due to the high amount of basketball being played. Studies have shown, according to Holmes, that those who specialize in one sport are 125% more likely to suffer injuries because of overuse.
"What our orthopedics are telling us is they're seeing wear-and-tear issues in young players that they didn't used to see until players were much older," Silver said at a press conference in 2017.
Marcus Elliott, the found of P3, a training center that specializes in advanced athlete assessment, told Holmes of the high school athletes they study, "They shouldn't be peaking at 16 or 17. But I can tell you from a data standpoint, you can make a case for it. And you talk to the individual athletes, a whole lot of them will tell you, 'Oh, when I was a senior in high school is when I was jumping my best. I was moving my best' ... It should happen at 23, 24, 25, but with most of these kids, that's not the case."
Former NBA point guard Earl Watson chimed in on Leonard's load management and pointed the finger at youth basketball.
"Kids are playing basketball year-round now, all day," Jay Williams said on ESPN's "Get Up" of why load management exists
NBA players, in general, are playing more, too. Some people chide today's players as being softer and unable to withstand the rigors of the NBA schedule. Those critiques ignore two key factors: both the game and training has grown.
The evolution of offense in the NBA has changed the way the game is played. The game is now played from 30 feet out instead of 20 feet out. Players like Stephen Curry command defensive attention when they cross half-court.
Furthermore, modern players also aren't taking the term "offseason" to heart. Most players take only a few weeks off before getting back in the gym and training, often playing basketball all summer long.
"When the season ended, Michael [Jordan] left and played golf and didn't pick up a basketball again until probably a little bit before training camp [in September]," Wally Blase (@WallyBlase), a former Chicago Bulls athletic trainer, told Holmes. "He might have played pickup ball with some friends, but he wasn't working eight hours a day at some gym with some shooting coach."
Changing basketball at all levels is not going to be easy as competition and potential revenues continue to grow.
It is unlikely that the NBA will alter its schedule unless it sees significant drops in ratings and profits, from the result of resting.
However, it is easy to remember the derision the Warriors received after their historic 73-9 season, where they would go on to blow a 3-1 finals lead to a Cavaliers team that had chosen to rest its star players in a handful of games throughout the regular season.
This is because as Jalen Rose (@JalenRose) said, "We only judge players, by the final result and how many championships they won."
The NBA can easily fix the problem with load management but it is easier to keep blaming the players for a problem the league created.