The NBA’s 180 on load management is giving me whiplash.
Five seconds ago, every available piece of science the NBA told us it had in its possession from its teams said – screamed – the same thing: players not only needed more time off but that the league would be derelict in its partnership with its players if it didn’t align with teams, whose data said: rest.
The league cut way back on back-to-back games. Many teams eliminated morning shootarounds, as they were viewed as disruptive to players’ sleep patterns. Every team had a “Director of Very Important Sports Science and Cutting Edge MahnaMahna” and scores of eager data collectors. Wearables tracked every waking moment of every player, what they ate, and when. Cameras high above each arena tracked every movement of every player on the court.
So, Joel Embiid rested. Kawhi Leonard rested. LeBron James rested. Everyone rested. Including in your city, after you plunked down $300 to take the family to see the Dubs’ one appearance in your city that season. Sorry, Felicity and Mikal: Steph’s in street clothes tonight. Wave to him; he’ll wave back.
And now … psych.
“Before, it was a given conclusion that the data showed that you had to rest players a certain amount, and that justified them sitting out,” NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Joe Dumars told national media in a conference call Wednesday.
“We’ve gotten more data, and it just doesn’t show that resting, sitting guys out correlates with lack of injuries, or fatigue, or anything like that. What it does show is maybe guys aren’t as efficient on the second night of a back-to-back.”
Dumars’ words echo those of Commissioner Adam Silver, as he introduced the league’s new “Player Participation Program” that was approved by the league’s Board of Governors last month.
“Honestly, that’s what I’d been told as well, that it was the science,” Silver said. “I think it may be why the league didn’t become involved maybe as deeply as we should have earlier on. Part of the discussion today was about the science, and frankly, the science is inconclusive.
“I think in the case here, that part of the commitment here from the league office is we are putting together a group of team doctors and scientists and others and trying to better understand it. One thing I want to make clear: The message to our teams and players is not that rest is never appropriate. And realize, there’s a bit of an art to this, not just a science.”
Load management has frustrated NBA, fans and TV partners. But will new rules help?
Now, the NBA has a lot of smart, smart people in its sports medicine department. The department, led by Dr. John DiFiori, helped create the Orlando Bubble in 2020 out of thin air – and, more or less, pulled it off. It then created a comprehensive return-to-play program for the following season that was lauded by other medical people for its thoroughness and honesty about how to deal with COVID cases when and if they occurred. The league had extensive and continuing dialogue with the Players’ Association, before, during and after the two sides hammered out the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement about these kinds of issues. It’s a partnership.
And during all of this, the NBA’s position was consistent: the science, the science, the science tells us so.
Just eight months ago(!) this is what Silver said during All-Star Weekend in February, in Salt Lake City: “I hesitate to weigh in on an issue as to whether players are playing enough because there is real medical data and scientific data about what’s appropriate. Sometimes, to me, the premise of a question as to whether players are playing enough suggests that they should be playing more – that, in essence, there should be some notion of just get out there and play. Having been in the league for a long time, having spent time with a lot of some of our great legends, I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.
“The world that we used to have where it was just, ‘Get out there and play through injuries,’ for example, I don’t think that’s appropriate. Clearly, I mean, at the end of the day, these are human beings – many of you talk to and know well – who are often playing through enormous pain, who play through all kinds of aches and pains on a regular basis. The suggestion, I think, that these men, in the case in the NBA, somehow should just be out there more for its own sake, I don’t buy into.”
And now … forget all of that?
To be fair, Silver has said, multiple times over the last few years, that he was concerned about the effect of load management on the league’s fans, who were increasingly paying to attend games in which no one they hoped to see play had on a uniform. And it became especially hard for the NBA to push teams to push their players to play after COVID reached our shores, though the league’s $100,000 fines instituted in 2020 for teams that group rested players was limited to nationally televised games.
The league also clearly leaned into, let’s say, encouraging its players that more participation was warranted by tying a minimum games played requirement for many of its individual awards going forward.
But at every turn, the league dropped back to its default position: We’re following the data.
So, are we to believe the science turned on a dime? Since February?
Did NBA players skip the line in the evolutionary process this spring, and suddenly grow a third lung, that now gives them greater breathing capacity? Have they been enhanced, like Grace in Terminator: Dark Fate, now better able to withstand the grind of an 82-game season, after not being able to go on past game 65 or so without congealing?
And, coincidentally, I’m sure: the data changed that quickly just as the league is reaching a key moment in its discussions with its current and potentially new media partners on a new rights deal, to replace the expiring one in 2025? Or, did the networks and/or tech companies vying to air or stream NBA games in the near future say, with justification: “For our eleventy billion dollars we’re spending to buy these rights, you damn sure are gonna make sure that Giannis and Steph and the Joker suit up on the regular”?
I’m not saying it’s the only consideration for TV/tech companies — who don’t know that they’re scheduling the Lakers back-to-back when they make their schedule requests; they don’t see the full 82 until you or I do. But it’s hard to believe they don’t push hard on that particular action item with the league’s media committee.
Let’s talk load management: Is it a problem? How do we know it works?
For the last decade-plus in the NBA, it’s been all about the numbers, all about the data, all about the science, even as the league (he noted, quietly) implemented both a Play-In tournament after the 82-game regular season, and before the two-month-long playoffs, and will now have an in-season tournament during the 82-game season, which will add an 83rd game to the two teams that make the in-season tournament final.
Rest, but play a little more, too, so that the regular season actually means something – and so we have another package to parlay into another sweet revenue stream.
The numbers ruled. And so, midrange jumpers were now stupid; rebounds no longer mattered. Big men who got in the way of all the driving and kicking were anathema; we only want rim runners now. And teams’ medical staffs all erred on the side of caution, to try to head off stress injuries and similar maladies before they got worse, by sitting players as much as possible. The days when players, proudly, would play all 82 games because that was what was expected of them were dismissed as Codger Thinking, ridiculous clinging on to the old days by old people who didn’t understand that they were shortening their careers by playing in meaningless games. (It wasn’t as if players back in the day didn’t deal with mental health issues as well.)
The NBA seems to want everyone to forget.
What’s more likely: All the teams’ data for the last half-dozen years has suddenly been discovered to be irreparably, incontrovertibly wrong? Or, the league went along with that data, ignoring those who said “Wait; Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas and John Stockton and Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing all suited up as much as possible, year after year, and didn’t fall apart,” because it didn’t want to push back against alleged “modern thinking”? That it couldn’t take a position of “Well, we trust our players,” because someone would present a paper at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference calling such thinking outdated? That it had to justify what every team, from its hedge fund CEO ownership on down, was now saying was “best practices?”
Dumars, one of those codgers, said Wednesday: “Obviously everybody’s not going to play 82 games, but everyone should want to play 82 games. And that’s the culture that we are trying to reestablish right now.”
Whatever the process the NBA used to go back to the future, I’m glad it did. It’s all right to keep some old-school thinking along with the new jack intel.
Fans can’t be guaranteed they’ll see the league’s top stars when they buy tickets; legit injuries happen. But if the league leaves it up to teams to make close calls on player health, the teams will protect their investments, every time. And I know enough about most players to know that, given the choice, they’ll opt to play. Whether out of ego or incentives or genuine care about the fans who pay top dollar to see them, they want to suit up.
That’s how you make the regular season more meaningful.
(Photo of Adam Silver: AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post via Getty Images)