A Closer Look at Load Management

Each year, NBA teams rest players more and more, particularly in road games, under the concept of load management.  The teams have shown great reluctance to play their stars (and even some non-star players) despite the fact that the players have no apparent injuries.  The most recent example comes from the Lakers, who will sit Anthony Davis and LeBron James in Brooklyn, even though they were off the prior day. The teams insist that they are taking reasonable steps to protect their valuable assets (star players) while writers, ex-players, and fans grumble that the strategy greatly devalues the regular season.

I thought we could take a look at how we got here, what exactly the teams are trying to accomplish, and whether load management can or should be addressed.

A brief history of load management

In olden times, the NBA (well, David Stern) did not take kindly to the concept of rest that was not related to recovery from a specific injury.  At the end of the 1989-90, Stern was fining teams for resting players.  On the last day of that season, the Lakers chose to rest James Worthy and Magic Johnson against the Blazers for a nationally televised game, even though the Lakers and Portland were locked into their playoff seeds (Portland ended up winning by 42).  Jerry Buss actually apologized for the resting, though Pat Riley was defiant that it wasn’t worth the risk stating that  he had “an obligation to our management” to protect his stars.  The NBA said the fine was “for failing to play two healthy players who are normally starters.”  Riley had fought this battle before.  In 1985, the Lakers were also fined for not playing Magic or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a season-ender against the Kings.

It seemed weird that the NBA was so militant about players playing in meaningless games but the issue did not crop up against until the early 2010s. Teams began sitting older players a bit but the issue came to a head in December 2012, when the Spurs sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green for a game against the Heat that was set for TNT.  Stern was not amused and fined the Spurs $250,000 because he felt they had no basis for resting players so early in the season under a rule that passed in 2010 that allowed the commissioner to fine teams under a “best interests of the NBA” clause. 

Since 2012, resting has become a much more common practice.  Notably, Steve Kerr rested all his stars for a primetime game against the Spurs in March 2017 but wasn’t fined because he had informed the NBA publicly in a prompt fashion (the Spurs in 2012 did not do so).  Adam Silver was sympathetic to the issue of resting players for long term goals, stating: “I think that’s a core responsibility of the team and I think it’s a very slippery slope for the league office to start getting in the business of telling a coach or team what minutes a player should play.”

At the time, Tim McMahon wrote for ESPN that the coaches felt the problem was intractable. Rick Carlisle rejected the bad public relations of rest: “It’s not that simple.  When you coach in this league for a while, you get a real feel for players and their levels of energy, their levels of wear and tear, both physically and emotionally. There are just times when you know a night of rest strategically spaced within a span of games is going to make a big difference in the long run.”  In that same article, Kerr blamed it on the rigors of the long schedule and traveling: “I think even just going down to 75 games, I think that would make a dramatic difference in schedule. Now I don’t see that happening because there is money at stake for everybody.  I do think this can be remedied though — maybe not remedied — but I think it can be dramatically helped with what the league is already working on for next year and the consideration of geographics when it comes to the schedule.” 

Now, here we are six years later and load management has proliferated and Kerr is talking about reducing the schedule to 72 games.

What is the goal of load management?

Obviously, the goal is to keep players healthy but are we trying to avoid wear-and-tear for the playoffs or is there some other goal?  It’s a little bit of everything.  In 2016, Tom Haberstroh wrote a detailed report on the issue and found that rest on the road is the clear choice: “[w]e are learning that those stars play far better and get injured far less if they rest more. As a Utah School of Medicine study found, back-to-back road games…yields 3.5 times more in-game injuries than those played at home.”

In other words, if your players are gassed AND more likely to get injured how can you not rest them on some of these grueling road trips?  The upside is low and the downside is significant.

As a quasi-counterpoint, a few studies have come to different conclusions on rest.  Here’s a sampling:

-In 2007, two University of Pennsylvania statisticians examined the role of rest and how it related to homecourt advantage in the NBA.  They confirmed that home teams have a big advantage but were skeptical of the role of rest played: “we conclude that the extraordinary high home court advantage enjoyed by NBA teams is partially explained by the tendency of the NBA schedules for the traveling teams to have reduced rest, but that the bulk of the advantage arises from other, non-related factors.”   

In a June 2017 study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers found that rest during the NBA regular season does not improve playoff performance or affect the injury risk during the playoffs in the same season.  The study looked at over 800 players and review performance and injuries and how they correlated to performance.  The study found that: “[a]lthough multiple potential confounding factors exist and may limit the results of this study, it should not be assumed that NBA players who rest more frequently during the regular season will perform at a higher level or be at a reduced risk of injury in the playoffs during that same season.”

-In December 2021, a group of statistician did a study on player fatigue and load management focusing on the handling of Kawhi Leonard.  This group concluded that: “the case study suggests that Kawhi Leonard’s player impact estimate does not necessarily improve in games immediately following additional rest compared to those with no load management. This calls into question the effectiveness of load management as a strategy in the short run, however it would ultimately be more important to figure out how load management pays off in the long run.”

Even the skeptical studies acknowledge the problems road teams face and don’t totally eliminate the possibility that road trips elevate risk of injury.  This also does not account for individual circumstances like Carlisle referenced where the staff can see that a player is gassed and at unnecessary risk.

What to do?

We can assume that the NBA will not reduce the games because there is a revenue cost to that strategy.  We can debate the ethics of that position but the choices are clear: (a) spread out road games even more than now or (b) accept load management.  The middle ground would be to get with experts to find a way to structure the schedule/travel to reduce risk of injury and allow for proper rest and to define the limits of load management.  In 2017, Silver said he didn’t want to have to be in the business of telling teams who to play and when but that day is rapidly coming anyway.