In March 2015, a family drove from South Dakota all the way to Denver just to watch the Golden State Warriors. They came to watch the NBA’s hottest show in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But because the Warriors were playing their fifth game in seven days, coach Steve Kerr rested both Curry and Thompson that night.
The Warriors were greeted with boo’s during player introductions, and Kerr admitted that he felt bad for those fans that came just to see his team play. Fans always deserve to see the best product on the court. But players also deserve to have a fair chance at the only prize that matters in June. Both can’t exist simultaneously.
The NBA has a “load management” problem. In today’s era, players are rested, even when completely healthy, in order to maintain their long-term health throughout the season. This past year, “load management” took the league by storm when LeBron James was rested in a primetime February tilt with the Warriors. James had just returned from a prolonged injury, but sat out the nationally-televised game against Golden State because of “load management.”
The new term stuck, and Kawhi Leonard has similarly been rested 14 times this season due to rest, or his own load management. In fact, the Raptors had determined before the season even started that their star player wasn’t going to play more than 68 games in the regular season.
The reasoning was so that he’d avoid long-term injuries and be healthy and rested come playoff time. The strategy appeared to pay off, as Leonard averaged 30 points and nine rebounds a game in the playoffs en route to a Finals MVP and a championship. Kawhi, himself, admitted that he wouldn’t have performed as well in the playoffs had it not been for the Raptors’ pre-determined strategy to rest him at times in the season.
San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich has been famous for resting his stars throughout the season to keep them healthy for the playoffs. He even incurred a $250,000 fine for sitting four key players in a game in 2012. But the Spurs have won five championships with Popovich at the helm, and likely aren’t changing things up anytime soon. The strategy seems to work.
So isn’t load management, then, a good thing?
While seemingly beneficial for teams, the issue of resting healthy players is actually detrimental to the league as a whole. At the end of the day, the NBA is a business. It makes massive amounts of money off of TV contracts and ticket sales. And in a star-driven league, the league banks on its star players to rake in the dough. Basically, it needs its stars to show up.
And herein lies the problem. Players need rest to stay healthy. And they need to stay healthy to be in peak form during the playoffs. But the NBA also needs its product to be constantly appealing through its long, grueling 82-game regular season. And to do that, there is little time to rest.
So while there may be no easy fix, let’s examine three possible solutions to the NBA’s load management problem:
3) Shorten the playoffs
As it stands, the NBA playoffs are really like a whole new season of its own. With four best-of-seven series, a team could potentially play up to 28 games–which is about a third of the regular season itself. A shorter postseason would result in less opportunities for injuries, and a lesser period of time players need to stay in peak form for.
In baseball, there are only three major series in the playoffs. After a one-game Wild Card, there’s a best-of-five series, followed by two best-of-seven’s. The MLB often doesn’t have injury problems that impact the playoffs to a great degree. Granted, just by nature, baseball is less strenuous and physical than basketball. But the shorter playoff schedule surely doesn’t hurt.
The way the NBA is structured now, 16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs. While that’s good for fan engagement during the postseason, the playoffs do drag on a little long as a result. Other than cutting down on the number of teams that make it in, one option would be to turn the first two series into best-of-five’s. This would cut down on the the number of games played in the playoffs, as well as shorten the overall playoff schedule.
It may not do a lot in terms of the load management problem, but it could be a start in allowing players to give it their all in both the regular season and the shorter postseason.
2) Spread the season out more
Opening night used to be at the end of October each year. A couple of years ago, the league moved it up to mid-October, in an attempt to spread out the season. The goal was to have less back-to-back games for teams, and less instances of four games in five nights. In the 2014-15 season, teams averaged 19.3 back-to-back’s per season. But this past year, teams averaged only 13.3 back-to-back’s.
This allows for more rest for the players and less physical and mental fatigue. And it’s a good start. But perhaps pushing the start of the season back even more could do wonders.
The NBA yearns to be relevant year-round. Even after the playoffs end, the NBA Draft is a huge media bonanza, and the start of free agency soon after sets the internet abuzz with stars signing with different teams. Only for a couple of months is the NBA not prominent in the minds of its fans.
So one solution to fixing the load management issue could be to push back the start of the season even more. The regular season ends in April, and the playoffs last through the rest of April and well into June. The end of the season is long enough as is, so pushing back the start of the season may be the way to go here. Perhaps start in early October, or maybe even shorten the pre-season and start the regular season in late September.
In doing so, the NBA would get to increase its period of relevance in the calendar year. And it would also spread out the games a little more and give players more rest throughout their 82-game schedule.
1) Shorten the regular season
Commissioner Adam Silver recently noted that the league is exploring the possibility of shortening the regular season. Silver is well aware of the load management issues, and that injuries sustained in the postseason to major players have greatly influenced this year’s playoffs.
A shorter regular season could do the trick in allowing more rest between games, while also raising the stakes for those fewer games. The players, themselves, are fans of the idea. In 2013, Damian Lillard said,
“Of course, if there were less games, I’d be able to play at a higher level because I wouldn’t have to play as many games. I’d have more energy and more bounce to my step if I wasn’t out there so much. Sometimes you can be worn down.”
A lot of injuries are related to fatigue. And playing far fewer games, in general, would go a long way in keeping players fresh and cutting down the opportunities for injury. The current 82-game season could be cut all the way down into the 60’s range.
The Raptors may have been on to something when they wanted Leonard to play no more than 68 games in the season. The resulting, fresh Leonard became the best player in the playoffs. And it was clear that energy was not an issue. In the regular season, Bradley Beal led all players in average distance run throughout the course of a game, at 2.75 miles. In the playoffs, Kawhi averaged running 2.89 miles per game. His fresh legs were on full display thanks to his shortened season.
At the end of the day, there are a myriad of issues that lead to the NBA’s load management problem, and there’s no easy solution. One anonymous NBA owner put it well:
“It’s not as simple as just shortening the schedule. It’s a holistic problem. A holistic approach needs to factor in how you can reduce fatigue-related injuries. The number of regular-season games may be a part of that, but practices, the preseason, workouts, sleep, nutrition and travel are also significant factors in causing fatigue-related injuries and, I believe, will be the first line of attack on the problem by the teams, the players and the league.”
While there may not be a firm target in eliminating the issue, the NBA needs to start somewhere. Already, Adam Silver has done a good job of spreading out the season a little more and discussing options moving forward. But there is more work to be done.
The NBA has a load management issue. It’s clearer now than ever before, and league executives have a lot on their plate trying to solve this one.
Let’s just hope they don’t take any days off. Because of, you know, load management.