Andrew Nealis and Stefano Fendrich
There is a hot new trend circulating the National Basketball Association (NBA): load management. This concept involves teams resting their star players to ensure long-term health throughout the season, despite being completely healthy. Some of the best players in the league like Kawhi Leonard, Lebron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson have been taking part in this new trend.
Several coaches have gotten lots of backlash for their decisions to rest players: most notably San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who received fines for benching players in 2012, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr during the past years of Warriors dominance from 2015-2019, and fellow California team coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers with the handling of offseason acquisition and team centerpiece, Kawhi Leonard. Evidently, it is very common amongst teams that are clear favorites to finish as one of the best teams in the NBA. But is it good for the NBA and its fans in the coming future?
Nine hours of practice, physical therapy five times a week, team meetings, and studying film. Taking multiple planes rides a week, sometimes switching time zones. Multiply this by three hundred sixty-five and you get a sense of what an NBA player has to go through to simply participate in the NBA. As every sports season is, the NBA season is incredibly grueling and contains eighty-two games plus postseason to top it all off. It is incredibly hard to go through all of these different things playing thirty-five minutes a game night in and night out.
Kawhi Leonard did all of these things and more last season, as he carried the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship playing 84 total games coming off an intense ankle injury that allowed him to play less than ten games the year before. Doing this took a lot of hard work and strain on his body. In the offseason, he signed a contract to join an already established Los Angeles Clippers team, who also acquired fellow superstar, Paul George. From the beginning, it was evident that the Clippers were favorites to win the NBA championship. With all this in mind, it was clear to Leonard that the Clippers wouldn’t need help in the regular season and would easily make the playoffs.
The main goal for all NBA players is to win an NBA championship, so in a lot of NBA player’s minds, it is a simple decision: why waste their energy in the regular season playing against teams that are tanking or just aren’t good, when they can use that energy and strength when it really matters in the NBA Playoffs? It has happened time and time again that athletes in all sports overwork and lose energy near the end of the season, or their bodies completely break down, and they get a terrible injury. “Load management” helps players rest and ensures they aren’t overworking their bodies which can lead to terrible consequences. Load management helps the NBA hold on to their best players for longer periods of time and reassures the fans that the best players will be able to give their best while showing out for amazing games in the postseason -- when the games really matter. But, what does that mean for the publicity of the first 82 games of the season?
The NBA is a business. Their goal is to put out the best product day in and day out so that they can make the best money in return. If the best teams are resting their best players and none of the teams’ stars are playing, who is going to be excited to see a starting lineup of typically bench players?
In Kawhi’s situation this year, he has missed high-profile matchups against league-leading teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and younger teams like the Atlanta Hawks and the Utah Jazz with their young stars Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell while healthy. For fans who paid to see these primetime games against the NBA’s best players instead watched the team's bench players play.
The NBA instituted a rule in 2017 that fined teams $100,000 for resting players who are healthy for high-profile games, and the fine has proven to be just pocket money for NBA owners like the Clippers Steve Ballmer. In addition to the fines, the regular season still has a significant amount of importance regarding the seeding for the playoffs. A team like the Clippers that have one of the best teams in the league, could lose six or seven wins because their best players rest fifteen to twenty games a season and cost them the home-court advantage which could be crucial in the extremely competitive western conference.
While an 82 game season can be grueling, most seasons for professional athletes are grueling. In sports like hockey, which has more contact than basketball, the players play 82-game seasons and up to 28 playoff games. Players like Keith Yandle and Patrick Marleau are applauded for their “ironman streak” a term used in hockey for the most consecutive games played in a row. Both of those players have surpassed 800 games in a row, with 824 (Yandle) and 813 (Marleau). The NBA’s current streak is Joe Ingles at 304 games, impressive yet seasons off of what the likes of Yandle and Marleau have mustered.