The idea of load management in the NBA was not the brainchild of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Rather, he was the first to see the science, recognize the value of keeping players rested and healthy (particularly as Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili/Tony Parker got older), and implement a plan to have guys at their best entering the playoffs rather than being worn down. Popovich has the rings to back up his thinking.
The science is unambiguous. It screams that rest — or, more accurately, giving players time to recover properly — matters most when keeping players both healthy over a long season and extending their careers. The most obvious example was last season in Toronto, when Kawhi Leonard played just 60 games to make sure his quad tendon (and opposite knee) were healthy when the playoffs started. The result was Leonard being the best player on the planet in the playoffs and the Raptors throwing a championship parade.
In the wake of the frivolous “debate” around Leonard missing games for the Clippers already this season to avoid injuries — which is what happened, no matter what the league office is selling — Mark Cuban came down on the side of the science. And resting players. Here are Cuban’s words, via ESPN:
“The problem isn’t load management, per se,” Cuban told reporters in Boston on Monday. “I think teams have to be smarter about when to load manage. I’m all for load management. Worse than missing a player in a [regular-season] game is missing him in the playoffs….
“It’s all data-driven,” Cuban said. “We’re not going, ‘OK, let’s just mess with the league and our meal ticket to fans to do something just because it might be interesting. We spend so much money, not just on analytics for predictive reasons, but also for biometrics so we know how smart we can be.
“The dumb thing would be to ignore the science.”
In his latest newsletter (something you should absolutely sign up for, it’s brilliant), Henry Abbott talks about the science of player rest (and has a great story on how it extended the career of Kyle Korver, something you can only read in that newsletter).
NBA fans generally hate load management. It reminds me very much of the early days of talking about climate change. Most people would rather the science just go away…
Years ago, a study showed that players in top European soccer leagues have six times the injury rate if they play two games instead of one per week. The study might not be the most relevant to the NBA—it’s a different sport—but it’s a home run that the schedule itself causes injuries. Tired bodies don’t have the same strength, and they are more likely to move inefficiently.”
I don’t know anything about the insides of Kawhi’s knee, but I know that there are times nowadays, when “just go out there and play” is a ridiculous approach. Enough NBA players are injured already. Kawhi uses more useful language: he should play when his body is “ready.” As in ready to take on big forces without big risks. It’s a much healthier way to discuss it (except that if a coach does it, the NBA might want $50k).
In the case of Leonard missing time, the NBA scheduled the Clippers on a back-to-back with both games on national television. Everyone knew he would miss a game, including the suits at the league office and at ESPN. The backlash came because he sat out an ESPN game (rather than the TNT one, so ESPN personalities spoke up), and it was against the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo, a matchup everyone wanted to see. However, from the Clippers’ perspective, it was the right move: The second game — vs. the Trail Blazers — was against a conference foe that would have a bigger impact both on seedings and potential tiebreakers down the line. That was the game the Clippers had to win, so they made sure their best player was ready for that game.
Want less load management? Reducing the number of NBA games is a start, but the problem is bigger and more holistic than just that. As Baxter Holmes wrote about in detail at ESPN last summer — and LeBron James complained about recently — the number of games at the AAU level, often in tightly compacted time frames at tournaments, is leading to problems long before guys get to the NBA. Young players are learning bad habits, not getting enough time to rest their bodies, and problems develop before guys even hit the NBA. That leaves teams at the highest level trying to clean up the mess and get the most out of their top players.
There are no easy answers. But the answer is not “you’re paid to play 82 games, so get out there.”