The controversial tactic of load management in the NBA

By Andrew D

April 19, 2023

Image Courtesy of Alamy

The seemingly endless debate in and around the NBA about the use of ‘load management’ tactics is one that refuses to die and lots of people have strong feelings about it. So here at The Jump Hub, we decided to spend an hour arguing amongst ourselves and now I have to wrangle all that madness into some kind of cohesive look at the subject. So, here goes, first things first…

What is load management?

Load management is the practice of leaving certain players out of games, not because they are injured or exhausted. It is done to give the players, generally older ones but not exclusively, a break to recover and be fresh for what might be considered more crucial games to follow. Load management tends to occur most often on one of two or more back-to-back games.

In sports with large squads like rugby league and soccer, this is not even a remotely unusual move. Fans might whine and moan when their favourite players fail to take to the field but generally accept that it is done for a good reason and move on. 

Not so in basketball

Some fans seem to take extreme exception to this tactic and liken it to cheating! In a sport that tolerates the obnoxious practice of deliberate tanking, we find it a hard pill to swallow to say that coaches shouldn’t be allowed to rest players they are going to need in their best form later. Now, before we start getting too heated, we want this debate to be a balanced one. Let’s look calmly at both sides of the argument before we conclude that NBA teams have large rosters for a reason and coaches can choose to play whomever the hell they want. 

Image Courtesy of Alamy

The history of load management

Before the 2010s, nobody had ever heard the term before. It was the San Antonio Spurs, under the direction of Head coach Gregg Popovich who introduced the tactic and got everyone’s knickers in a twist. The Spurs began systematically resting top players and the NBA overlords were not happy.

Why were they so upset? The game was televised

And maybe they were right to be upset. After all, the NBA is big business. It has transcended the arena of mere sport and become a behemoth of almost unimaginable size. We only have to look at the fascinating story of the NBA scandal to see that forces much bigger and more powerful than those required to propel men 10 feet into the air towards a metal hoop are always at play. And those forces do not care about your feelings or thoughts on the validity of certain actions or outcomes. They care about money.  

As a quick aside, the story of the NBA scandal is a truly fascinating, salacious one that you should check out in our new serialised article ‘In their own words. The NBA betting scandal’. Have some popcorn ready! 

So, we hope that everyone reading this can agree, the San Antonio Spurs were within their moral rights to send home 4 of their ageing players before their road game against Miami?

That’s not to say we have to agree they were right to do so. We’ll come to that...

But Popovich was clearly doing what he thought was best for the bigger picture, resting up superstars he was going to need in a game that they could afford to lose.

And the commissioner at that time, David Stern felt he was doing the right thing in fining the San Antonio Spurs $250,000, citing a rule that they were:

‘…resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA’

The best interests of the NBA? Hmm. So, there it is in black and white for all to see. According to that logic, the best interests of the NBA run contrary to those of the teams that make up the league. In this scenario, the NBA preferred the Spurs to risk injury or exhaustion to those players because they would be more likely to draw attention and ratings to that night’s game. Zero forward-thinking. Zero appreciation of the difficulties coaches face in a season with 82 regular games and a potentially gruelling playoff series. 

They took away the coach's right to use his knowledge and experience to choose the players he wanted and give some weight to the bigger picture

So, effectively, if the rule is:

‘You will play your best men at all times, no matter what’

What do we need the coaches for? Can’t we just have panels of NBA experts deciding who those players are and informing them their services will be required? 

As it happens, teams caught onto the practice and it became widespread among all teams, it’s just that they chose to ‘hide’ it behind trifling injury assessments and spurious fitness worries. This escalated to the point where it was given the moniker ‘load management’ which still sounds like something from the set of an adult movie if you ask us…

Now, looking at it objectively, which is not easy to do in a heated topic, would you rather that your favourite team (Go Hawks!) was forced to deceive you and tell you they were worried about a certain player’s fitness, or treat you like an adult and tell you they were being rested to preserve their energy levels and health for an upcoming game?

It is really preferable teams have to lie in order to justify their roster management?

Even the players themselves joke about the situation, pondering on social media why we might suddenly see a spate of hamstring and groin ‘injuries’ at crucial times of the season. This is despite the remarkable recuperation techniques and facilities these players have access to, and the incredible advancements in sports science. All are geared towards keeping them fit, healthy, and injury free as much as possible. Sure, some injuries and issues are still bound to happen but there is literally no way that they would come in such bursts otherwise and only ever seem to affect star players. Not a chance.

How does it affect those of us who like to engage in recreational sports betting? 

We don’t want to hear that the high-scoring small forward from the opposing team we're about to bet against is ‘injured’ only to find out it was a ruse and he’s fine. Wagering on sports is difficult enough as it is, even with the most up-to-date information and analytics. If you start throwing false injury reports into the mix, we might as well give up trying to make informed assessments and bets altogether. 

Image Courtesy of Alamy

How do the players feel about it?

It would be churlish to try and represent the attitudes of all players when attempting to answer a question like that. Suffice it to say that there are players who want to play every single game they can and hate being benched or sent home to protect and preserve them. Golden State Warriors’ legendary guard Stephen Curry refutes the idea that load management is something all players welcome, saying:

“I usually campaign to play every game,” Curry said. “That’s the misconception about load management and how it goes. It’s never the player that is usually saying, ‘Hey, I want to sit…So, for all those people that are worried about that part of our league, it’s usually not the player that is going to the training staff and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t have it tonight.’ It’s usually the other way around. There’s a lot of science involved.”

Stephen Curry

A balanced view

So, politics aside, let’s try and evaluate the pros and cons of this tactic and objectively assess whether we think it is detrimental to fans’ experience of the NBA overall.

It would be unfair to say that the NBA has done nothing to tackle the issue of load management. It’s just that, as with the scourge of tanking, it hasn’t really achieved everything it needed to. The number of back-to-back games (played on consecutive days) has certainly been reduced.

  • From the 2002/’03 season to 2014/’15, most teams played around 20 back-to-backs per full season (82 games)

That represents almost a quarter of all their games in a season. When it reached 2018/’19, no team played more than 15 back-to-backs and the league average was only 13. That means they managed to eliminate almost a third of all back-to-back games in a few short years.

So, that all seems like good news, steps in the right direction, the league listening and making adjustments. Wow, it’s almost like they actually care what the franchises have to say. 

But wait…

It might seem rather counterintuitive, but no relationship has ever been established between back-to-back NBA games and elevated injury rates. But playing games on consecutive days doesn’t make players more susceptible to injuries. What it does seem to affect is levels of tiredness and, subsequently, reduced levels of exertion in the second game. Tracking metrics have shown that players do less work, cover less ground, and expend less energy in the second game and that surely makes for a less entertaining spectacle.

It may also be that the team’s insistence on fewer back-to-back games has hurt them in other ways. The number of consecutive rest days that players could expect in 2013/’14 was 4.1. That has plummeted to just 2.1 in recent seasons. Those extra days have to come from somewhere, and in a league that is so ‘game-heavy’, there appears to be no other option. Teams tend to use any extended rest periods they have to talk tactics, practice, and drill plays. This doesn’t usually happen when there is only one day of rest, so teams started to complain that they weren’t able to practise! Maybe we can sympathise a little with the NBA on this one. They assessed the situation yet again and discovered that they were able to reduce the amount of travel teams would have to do. By as much as 4,000 miles in fact.

  • Down from 46 thousand per year in 2017/’18 to 42 thousand in 2022/’23.

They also introduced what is known as the ‘series model’, whereby teams play each other twice in the same arena to further reduce travel. Any reduction is good for the players and the environment so let’s hope it is a system that is retained moving forwards. Another useful change, certainly from a financial perspective, is the increased number of weekend games.

Creating an NBA playing schedule is much more complicated than it might seem

That's even without these added considerations and restrictions. It must take into account every aspect of a matchup, from arena availability, corporate preferences, network requirements and so on and so on. The list is almost impossibly large to comprehend. As a result, a computer algorithm is required to do a lot of the legwork. If that seems lazy then consider this:

The number of ways that the games in a full season of the NBA could be arranged is trillions of times larger than the estimated number of atoms in the universe. And that’s without even factoring in dates and times! So we’ll cut them some slack on that one…

Nike splits with Irving

Moving forwards

Head coach of the Golden State Warriors Steve Kerr wants to shrink the regular season from 82 games down to 72, saying: 

“I feel terrible for fans who buy tickets expecting to see someone play and they don’t get to see that person play. It’s a brutal part of the business. It’s why I’m going to continue to advocate for 72-game seasons…You take 10 games off the schedule, it always feels like with 10 games left in the year everybody’s sort of had it anyways. That creates enough rest where we don’t have to have some of these crazy situations. I think you’d see way fewer games missed from players.”

Steve Kerr

Kerr thinks the regular season should be shorter and he might have a point. Or there may need to be some kind of structure introduced that incentivises teams to play their best men at all times. To treat each game seriously and with respect. In a sport that still has several spineless franchises deliberately tanking games to gain an advantage further down the line, we can hardly be said to have reached the zenith of what is possible.

The effectiveness of load management is also disputed

Now, you may call us cynical (please do, we are) but it strikes us that those who stand to lose something from players missing certain games would say and do anything to decry the tactic. Are we to believe the word of the juggernaut that would use them up and crush them in its colossal machinery if it meant a few more dollars in sponsorship? What objectivity can we assume or expect in those circumstances? It might be overly negative of us to say ‘none’ but that’s pretty much how we feel about it.

The fact is, the ‘watchability’ factor of the NBA is more important and powerful than perhaps any of us can imagine. Whether it is an imagined effect based on our biases or a real one based on the difference in skill levels and showmanship, many fans would agree that the NBA is simply not as watchable when the big names don’t feature. We would actually hold our hands up and say ‘fair enough’ if the NBA were to treat us like actual fully formed, coherent adults who can grasp the concept of the ‘bigger picture’. Who could recognise that, for the league to survive and thrive, it has to continue to draw in the big numbers and the big bucks. We’re not stupid. This is the only way it was ever going to work in the capitalist utopia (hmm) that is the modern world. 

But they don’t...

They prefer to insult our intelligence and trot out tired old tropes about teams lacking cohesion and fluidity if the players keep changing. This kind of lazy excuse-making is barely worth addressing, so we’ll keep it brief.

In what world does anybody think the whole roster of players at any given NBA franchise does not train, practice, drill, learn, and improve together? Are they trying to tell us the superstar ‘must-start’ players are kept away from the others in some kind of isolationist bubble? Lest the inferior talents of squad players diminish their own and make those stars shine that much less brightly? Have we ever heard such nonsense? These guys are close. Maybe not all socially or ideologically, but certainly physically. They play together, run plays, discuss tactics, and, you know, play.

In other words, they’re a team

There are egos and issues as with any testosterone-heavy, hard-of-thinking environment, but assuming we trust the coach to actually do his job to ‘coach’ and mould them how he sees fit, then so what? 

What they are too small-minded and inherently, pathologically secretive to admit is that they are beholden to the wishes of their big-money sponsors. Companies who advertise at the games want the big names to feature because they know it will draw higher numbers of casual television viewers. People who might actually spend money on their products and help them recoup and surpass the whacky cost of advertising with the NBA. 

Die-hard fans will be tuning in no matter what 

But they are looking to catch the eye of those sporadic, bored viewers who might be scrolling through a mountain of dross and pause momentarily if they see LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo cavorting around on the screen. 

Do they actually want us to believe that the sponsors care in any other way about the content or the participants? We are talking pure, unadulterated number-crunching here. ‘So, according to the latest figures and projections, attention spans are held for 4.32 seconds longer when person X appears on the screen. Make sure they do.’ It could be a ‘who-can-throw-a-bread-roll-through-a-toilet-seat-competition for all they care. Money talks etc…

We know that. They know that.
They know that we know that. We know that they know that we know that. 

So if they could just go ahead and stop treating us like mindless numbskulls that would be just fine and dandy. Ok, so maybe that was less brief than anticipated. It’s good to rant now and again…

The game has changed

Like it or not, we have to collectively accept that the regular season portion of the NBA calendar has been devalued somewhat over the years. The focus is always on how it will affect teams’ chances of making the NBA Playoffs more than anything else. And we’re fairly sure the league would agree with us on that, the playoff series should be the focus of the season and the pinnacle of achievement. But if they do agree then how can they decry the tactic of load management? It is effective at protecting star players and giving them the best chance of featuring in the post-season tournament. 

Basketball is a whole different ball game than it was in its early days. The style of play has changed dramatically over the years and it bears little resemblance in many ways. The overall pace of modern games, perhaps counter-intuitively, is slower. However, the onus is now on burst-speed, rapid changes of direction, capped off with some insanely athletic acrobatics. This simply wasn’t the case in the old days and we will never again see a situation where a player averages almost the full amount of a game or even more than regulation 48 minutes as Wilt Chamberlain did. 

Just think about that for a moment... 

The man finished every game he started and played so many games with overtime that his career average was over 48 mins. 

The modern style puts much more strain on admittedly better-trained and handled bodies. Sports science has come a long way. Do they have superior medical facilities and recovery methods available? Of course, better than you or I could afford if we pulled a hamstring, but if you sprain an ankle changing direction at full tilt, there is not much anybody can do. Throw into this mix the seemingly never-ending grind of the amateur game and you’re looking to burn out players long before they ever would have done before. On the flip side of that, they’re getting paid enough money to last a lifetime in one season so the river that we cry will be an arid one. 

Final thoughts

We know that the NBA exists because it makes money. We have all come to accept that inalienable fact. But what we cannot accept is being lied to or treated like idiots. When we have a situation where players are picking up so-called injuries to avoid drawing the ire of the NBA, there is something fundamentally amiss. If we find ourselves in a position where teams have to deceive the league that supports them in order to do their jobs correctly, some kind of course correction is required.

We’re not claiming to have all the answers, this is clearly a complex machinery that has many moving parts and fingers in pies.

The NBA is a giant, shiny meat-grinder

One that will chew them up and spit them out sooner or later, so we don’t blame the players if they’re happy to sit a few games out and still get paid. And the hardcore fans accept it as a legitimate tactic. So, once again we’re pandering to the whims of those who care not one jot about the actual game itself, only what dividends it can allow them to pay their insatiable shareholders. 

We are not naive. Money is and always will be the fundamental goal of the NBA and we have to accept that. It can’t really be any other way, unfortunately. But as fans of the teams themselves, we don’t really care about that. We care about winning, sure. And you need to spend money for that. But it’s a necessary evil we have to accept to get the feeling we’re looking for; we don’t have to like it. We care about seeing some incredible action and nail-biting finishes. About the roar of the crowd, the ebb and flow of tight games, and the sheer exhilaration of a buzzer-beater. Watching sports is the purest form of escapism from the crappiness of normal life, and to be constantly reminded that it is just as grubby and soiled by the almighty dollar as everything else in this world is depressing indeed.

So, where does the answer lie?

As a fan, it feels irritating for our teams to have to pretend players have injuries to avoid punishment for resting them as they see fit. It is silly and obvious, so we’d like to see some kind of system that allows them to do so in an adult manner but without upsetting too many sponsors. If they’re going to do it anyway, the league might as well get in on it and work with them. Sit down to talk about how to move forwards in everybody’s best interest rather than forcing the teams into this kind of childish deception that helps nobody. 

Nobody would argue it is bad for the overall spectacle of the NBA and its status as an entertainment product to have star players injured (legitimately or otherwise) or resting. Casual fans tend to watch nationally televised regular season games rather sporadically and that lack of commitment makes the league and its sponsors twitchy. One of the main problems that the NBA faces is the dichotomy of team vs individual. All team sports have their standout players that bring greater value to the team as a whole but none more than in basketball. It may be that having only 5 players on the court at a time puts greater attention on those individuals. Or that the skills and athleticism they display do not always require the assistance of the other team members. One player can effectively dominate a game and have the rest of them in his pocket. We massively over-focus on their individual performance, of course, breaking down every moment of every minute they play and analysing it to attribute greater meaning and foresight. 

Or maybe it’s just the Michael Jordan effect… 

Whatever the reason, NBA players are as much a group of individuals as they are a team and that’s a problem. The NBA is a league of superstars and can we honestly say we would want it any other way?

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