‘Load management’ isn’t actually a problem, but it might expose one

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Kendrick Perkins called it “BS.” David Fizdale’s word of choice was “crap.” Jalen Rose hates it, Doris Burke says it’s “ridiculous,” and Twitter Eggheads, for a solid week, have been “pissed off.” All because Kawhi Leonard chose to not play in a basketball game, just like he did 22 times last season.

But last week, on Leonard’s second scheduled rest day of 2019-20, the NBA world exploded. Even fans and media members who wished to ignore the topic got sucked in. The sheer volume of the chatter, when combined with its controversial nature, presented “load management” as a problem the NBA must confront.

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But is it?

The answer weaves together contradictory incentives and left-field solutions and science and economics. It touches the collective-bargaining agreement and many of the league’s stakeholders and even the core principles of sport.

In the end, that answer is probably no – “load management” won’t meaningfully impact the NBA’s bottom line. But it might expose a broader issue that could. Because it isn’t a problem. It’s actually a solution – to another problem of the NBA’s own making.

‘Load management’: a growing trend

Kawhi has become the poster child. He’s not alone. Three weeks into the season, the NBA’s Fall 2019 DNP-Rest catalog already features stars (Russell Westbrook), rookies (Ja Morant) and bench players (Mo Bamba). Some load managers, like Kristaps Porzingis, are easing back from injuries. Others, like Al Horford, are healthy.

The list will soon grow because extreme exertion on back-to-back November nights is not, in all likelihood, a responsible method of building toward an April peak. The science behind “load management,” in some cases, remains murky. But in general, says Tim Gabbett, a sports performance expert who has consulted with NBA teams, “We know that spikes in load, rapid increases in load, can increase risk” – of injury and underperformance. Load management is a preventative measure.

The specifics of building physical capacities vary by player. “If you know something about Kawhi Leonard, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know something about LeBron James,” Gabbett clarifies.

Similarly, the extent to which NBA teams invest in and believe in the science fluctuates across the board. Many have developed nuanced training plans based on in-house research. Some don’t believe scheduling DNP-Rests is useful. Most do.

Inconclusive science isn’t necessarily irrelevant. Increasingly, teams are erring on the side of caution because … well, if you’re a playoff lock or sure-fire lottery squad, why wouldn’t you?

The 82-game problem

The fundamental issues here are season length and playoff format. The 82-game regular season wears down human bodies – bodies that now enter the league with more logged mileage than ever before. And NBA games today are faster and more physically taxing than ever before. It is no coincidence, then, that injuries are more prevalent. 

And for those fatigued, broken-down players? The league’s competitive format offers little incentive to fight through pain or risk incurring more. The length of the regular season, coupled with the size of the playoffs (four best-of-seven rounds), saps importance from each individual contest. If Kawhi sits on a Wednesday night in November, the decision may cost the Clippers one win out of 50-something, which may cost them a playoff seed, which may cost them a slightly easier matchup, and may cost them one home playoff game, which is worth roughly five points in a series that will feature more than a thousand.

Kawhi’s presence in that series, on the other hand, is worth many more.

So until science informs us that there is zero benefit attached to rest – which it won’t – or until the league’s competitive format changes, “load management” will continue to trump desires to win before mid-April. It is both enabled by the regular season’s length and necessary because of it.

Does the NBA have a realistic solution?

Would, or could, the NBA ever slim down its regular season?

The idea has its supporters within and around the league. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported in June that a committee of top executives discussed it – but that “the appetite among team officials for a major reduction in the number of games was limited.”

There is merit to the idea, but also reasons it is unlikely to materialize. After all, no major professional sports league has ever executed a similar reduction. Fewer games means fewer tickets sold and fewer TV broadcasts, which means less revenue. There’s no meaningful change that wouldn’t, in the short term, cut into the NBA’s $8 billion annual pie.

Proponents argue that a reduced regular season would bolster the league’s long-term appeal. That it would boost the bottom line in, say, 2030. And players, for the physical relief it would bring, would presumably be on board.

Those same players might actually be an obstacle. Per the CBA, the NBA has a contractual obligation to the players to maximize revenue every year. But a reduction in games would mean a reduction in revenue. And because players’ salaries are a function of the league's basketball-related income, their future earning potential would take a hit. If, as the argument goes, reducing games means a boost to the long-term bottom line, would current players — who won't be around in five or 10 years when the benefits kick in — sacrifice today for the good of tomorrow?

If the answer is no, and if the league can’t concoct alternative revenue streams, then it is without a viable “load management” solution.

It could expand its “Resting Policy,” which currently levies fines against teams that sit healthy players on nationally televised games. Smart franchises will eat those fines because they, like Doc Rivers, understand the importance of doing everything in their power to cater to stars.

The NBA could, theoretically, implement mandates: If you’re healthy, you play. But what’s stopping teams from fabricating injuries?

It could legislate against fabrication. But then what’s stopping players from suiting up, starting, checking out after five seconds and heading straight down the tunnel?

There are no satisfactory answers. No feasible way to tackle the root cause. So what about attacking the symptom?

After missing 22 games last year, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4896/" data-ylk="slk:Kawhi Leonard">Kawhi Leonard</a> has already sat out three of 11 games this season. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
After missing 22 games last year, Kawhi Leonard has already sat out three of 11 games this season. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

But what about the fans?!

The symptom is fan frustration, and potentially diminished interest. It’s precisely what Vijay Shravah, a former NASA engineer, had in mind when, in October 2017, around the time the NBA’s Resting Policy took effect, he founded Fansure. The idea: Allow fans to buy insurance on purchased NBA tickets, and secure reimbursements if the superstar they want to watch sits out.

It’s a novel concept, and one that, Shravah says, has led to talks with major ticket retailers. Would the NBA, or any of the league’s 30 franchises, consider adopting it?

Shravah says that he’s spoken to “a couple of NBA teams.” The response, he says, was: “Oh, man, that’s cool that you have a product out there because we talked about this a few years ago.”

No NBA-affiliated equivalent ever came to fruition, probably because to endorse such a product would be to acknowledge the oft-ignored risk associated with the ticket purchase, and would be admitting to a problem that isn’t anywhere near as threatening as the public discourse around it would have you believe.

So is ‘load management’ a legitimate problem?

“Load management” isn’t going away. Before long, science will have its say. In all likelihood, it will gradually preach more caution, not less. It will inform more conservative loading schedules, not more aggressive ones. DNP-Rests will continue to rise. 

Will they have any direct, meaningful impact on the NBA’s bottom line? 

To do damage, they would have to touch TV ratings, and by extension future rights deals. And although NBA viewership dropped at both local and national levels last season, there is no evidence that load management had anything to do with the declines. The number of stars who have logged DNP-Rests on TNT, ESPN or ABC is nowhere near as high as the furor around the topic would suggest. It’s certainly nowhere near the number of games missed by stars due to injury.

Which, in the end, speaks to a key point. NBA teams aren’t depriving you. They want their stars on the floor even more than you do. They’ve simply decided that preserving players’ availability for the long haul requires some near-term concessions. That a night off here and there might help avoid injury and actually increase a star’s court time. And as long as Joe Schmo isn’t refusing to watch the Clippers in May because Kawhi Leonard robbed him of some casual weeknight entertainment in November, the NBA will be just fine.

Perhaps the real worry, though, is the indirect effect of all this kerfuffle. The entire ethos of sport is that the games matter. Competitive purity is the basis on which all successful leagues sell themselves. And in the world’s two most popular leagues, the NFL and EPL, week in and week out, it’s real.

In the NBA, to an extent, it’s a facade. Might “load management” help fans see through that facade?

It’s a speculative question without a definitive answer. The answer, if there is one, is probably no. Because the NBA is staffed with marketing savants and marketable stars who – news flash – still play far more games than they sit. Competitiveness is part of who they are. It’s for this reason that no matter how meaningless the regular season gets in theory, in practice it will always matter. The aesthetics and the narratives of the sport will endure. 

Load management, ultimately, is a response to other NBA problems, not a problem in and of itself.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook

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