The NBA Regular season is a grueling 82 game slog. These games are key to building team chemistry and gaining seeding for the NBA’s postseason where the level of play ratchets up and heroes are made. However for some players, their main focus is simply on arriving at the end of the 82 games unscathed with their body ready to take on the punishment of the NBA Playoffs.
What is load management in the NBA? Load Management is a term used in the NBA when a player, usually a star player, has rest games planned into their schedule by their teams sports science coaches. Not playing in these games, often when the team has back to back games scheduled, is designed at limiting the wear and tear on the players body, reducing the risk of injury and hopefully enabling them to play at a higher physical level more often and particularly when it matters, in the postseason.
While most NBA fans will agree with the concept of load management, we’re human too and need rest occasionally, it isn’t as simple as just accepting it. NBA players are paid a huge amount of money to play NBA games. The least fans can expect when they have parted with hard earned cash for themselves and their children to attend a game is that the headline players take to the floor. No one would begrudge an injured player sitting out, but when Steph Curry only comes to Detroit once a season, it can be gutting for fans if he’s chosen to sit out to rest up for a more important game the next night. So what’s the solution and why has this become a problem after 75 years of NBA action.
When did the term Load Management first appear in the NBA?
The term load management appeared in NBA parlance around 2018. In its initial days it is most remembered for its attachment to Kawhi Leonard. In his final years with the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi played 72 games (2015-16) and 74 games (2016-17). He would suffer an injury while in the process of destroying the Kevin Durant Warriors on the road in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Finals when Zaza Pechulia stepped underneath him while he unleashed another corner 3.
Kawhi would all but refuse to play for the Spurs the following season, registering just 9 games in a standoff around how the Spurs medical team were handling his recovery. At the start of the 2018-19 season Kawhi would be traded to the Toronto Raptors, where he played just 60 regular season games before exploding in the Playoffs, featuring in all 24 Raptors games and clocking 39 minutes per game on his way to an NBA title and Finals MVP. If there would ever be proof of concept for load management Leonards 2018-19 title run was exactly that. The League would never be the same again.
The success achieved by the Raptors treatment of Kawhi, who only had one year on his contract when traded and never intended to re-sign with them, emboldened them to speak openly about the reason Kawhi had missed 22 games during the regular season.
After taking a 3-1 lead in Game 4 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Warriors, Kawhi spoke openly about his load-management program.
Telling ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that if the Toronto Raptors hadn’t put him on a load-management plan during the regular season, he wouldn’t be playing in the NBA Finals.
“It was big, when it got bad, we ended up taking, you know, four or five games off. And, you know, if we didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here right now. The way we laid out the schedule was good. I’m happy.”
Leonard went on to say that he didn’t think he would be playing in the NBA Finals if he hadn’t taken time off during the regular season.
The on-court success achieved by winning the title, the openness with which Toronto and Kawhi talked about load management opened the door. Whereas previously players would list a general injury, such as Kawhi’s “Knee Injury Recovery” as the reason for missing a game, this would soon just turn to “DNP – Rest”. Backed by sports science, frustration with an overloaded schedule and back to back games and supported by the biggest players in the game, the NBA’s load management era had arrived. Superstars would start missing more and more regular season games in order to prepare themselves for the NBA Playoffs.
This perhaps culminated in the 2022-23 season where the Miami Heat finished 8th in the East, lost the first Play-in tournament round, rallied in the 4th quarter to stave off elimination against the Bulls and then marched their way to the NBA Finals. Coupled with the amount of games missed by star players, this Miami Heat playoff run sent out a message that the Regular Season really didn’t matter as long as your best players were healthy for the postseason.
Has load management always been an issue in the NBA?
As we went into above, the term load-management is fairly new to the NBA. Does this mean that players didn’t take games off to rest before 2018? Ultimately the answer is no, they didn’t. Obviously players would pick up niggles and miss games here and there, maybe someone coming back from a major injury would skip a game or too, but it was usually because of a genuine fear of aggravating an injury. If you hear players from Jordan’s era talk, they had a demented desire to play every NBA game on the schedule. Looking at their games played stats, this isn’t just talk.
The thing is, the game changed. The court got bigger. Not actually, in terms of the lines, but the space NBA players have to operate in now is huge. Look at any game between 1980 and 2010 and you’ll probably see groups of players gathered around the basket. Nowadays players will run a transition to the wing to shoot a 3 pointer. Analytics, shooting skill level, fitness and modern advances in training have allowed players to become better, faster and fitter. However this all takes its toll on joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles. The human body was only designed to take so much, elite athletes, particularly the giants in the NBA (Steph Curry is considered small at 6ft2, 2023 No.1 pick Wembanyama is 7ft5) are pushing the boundaries of what human bodies can tolerate. The game is faster and these players spend more time sprinting around screens or to close out on shooters.
Rest is more important than ever. Gone are the days where you can play 3 games in 4 nights, drink beer after them all and expect to still be in elite condition come the end of the season.
Something needed to change, the players and teams looking to win NBA titles decided that was the use of load-management to make sure they found a balance between playing enough games to achieve their teams regular season goals and arriving at the postseason in the condition they need to be for a deep playoff run.
The League and its Broadcast partners with “fan’s” (see money) in mind have already made concessions, attempting to reduce back to backs and creating a smoother schedule that puts less pressure on players’ physical demands. After the 2022-23 season was widely regarded to have been massively affected by load-management rest games, the league is set to take action in 2023-24.
What are the NBA’s new rest policy rules?
In September 2023 ahead of the 2023-24 season it was reported that the NBA’s board of governors were going to be voting on a proposal by the NBA’s competition committee that would see stricter rules in place to control load-management.
The rules are expected to focus on Star-players resting for nationally televised and in-season tournament games. It is expected that the term star-player will be defined by them having been selected for an All-star or All-NBA team in the previous 3 seasons. The punishment lever could be as great as a $1 million fine per instance for the franchise.
These moves are set to build on 2017-18’s player resting policies and the previously announced decision to put a minimum 65 game cap on eligibility for post season awards like MVP.
The fines for franchises that start at $100,000 and can escalate to $1,000,000 per instance will be based on the findings of league office investigations, which are set to include independent medical reviews.
It is widely reported that the new NBA rest management rules will feature the following points:
- Teams must manage their roster to ensure that no more than one star player is unavailable for the same game.
- Teams must ensure that star players are available for national television and in-season tournament games.
- Teams must maintain a balance between the number of one-game absences for a star player in home games and road games with the preference on those absences to happen in home games.
- Teams must refrain from any long-term shutdown, when a star player stops participating in games or plays in a materially reduced role in circumstances affecting the integrity of the game.
- Teams must ensure that healthy players resting for a game are present and visible to fans.
In addition it is believed that caveats will be put in place for more senior players. Players over 35 on opening night of the NBA season, players with 34,000+ Regular Season minutes or 1,000+ total NBA games played will be allowed exemptions from things like back to backs.
Will the NBA reduce its 82 game regular season?
It seems unlikely that the 82 game regular season will be significantly reduced. Playing less games will ultimately be handing money back to broadcasters. There is an argument that a reduced schedule will be a more valuable schedule. Fans’ disappointment at the MVP race matchups between Jokic, Embiid and Giannis being affected by the stars resting the head to head’s against each other is evidence that fewer games and less load management would lead to an overall better product. However, the NBA will try everything it can to maintain the 82 game schedule and reduce the impact of load-management, if it can.
On the horizon is the reported 2 franchise expansion, pushing the league to 32 teams. This may be an opportunity for the league to slightly reduce the schedule. However, even that seems unlikely to happen.