NBA ‘load management’ no longer supported by scientific data, league says

In a stunning development, a top NBA official said teams’ general practice of resting players to prevent future injury and extend careers — commonly known as “load management,” a term ingrained into the lexicon of the sport over the past several years as some of the biggest stars missed huge amounts of games — is no longer supported by scientific data held by the league.

“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,” Joe Dumars, executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, said.

“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,” Dumars said. “What it does show is maybe guys aren’t as efficient on the second night of a back to back.”

The phrase, “load management,” was most infamously used to explain the occasional games Kawhi Leonard sat out during his lone season with the Toronto Raptors in 2018-19 to manage the wear and tear of a leg injury that had caused him to miss all but nine games of the previous year with the San Antonio Spurs.

The practice of resting players who are not obviously injured predates Leonard, but it (along with the actual phrase of “load management”) spread like wildfire throughout the NBA over the last two seasons, with numerous stars being held out of the same games, often when they were broadcast on national TV, even though they were not obviously injured.

As recently as last February, during All-Star weekend, NBA commissioner Adam Silver rejected the notion that star players were missing too many games. He said “there is real medical data and scientific data about what’s appropriate.”

But since Silver’s comments, the NBA has — in agreement with the players’ union — set a new games-played requirement for eligibility for postseason awards, like NBA MVP. More recently, the NBA created new league policies to restrict when they may rest players who are not obviously injured.

Dumars said the NBA was trying to change “the culture of this league.”

“The culture should be that every player should want to play 82 games,” Dumars said. “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.”

Dumars and Evan Wasch, the league’s executive VP of basketball strategy and analytics, have been meeting with teams throughout the preseason to stress greater participation during the regular season, a better effort given during the NBA All-Star Game, and to promote buy-in from the players in the league’s first In-Season Tournament this season.

Both Dumars and Wasch also said that among the league’s concerns as they relate to star players either playing more during the regular season, or trying harder in the All-Star Game, was the impact load management and a generally lousy All-Star Game last February in Salt Lake City was having in the league’s ongoing negotiations with potential broadcast partners on a new TV contract worth billions of dollars.

“All of this matters — the reaction to the fans, players, your TV (and) broadcast partners,” Dumars said.

Added Wasch: “We don’t need our TV partners to tell us that when teams sit players and when players don’t try at an All-Star game that makes for worse competition. It’s incredibly obvious to us, and ultimately we’re trying to serve fans. Yes, it’s the case that because we’re negotiating TV deals in the next year or two here, it takes on even greater importance because we’re in the middle of those conversations. But we can self identify that these were issues that needed addressing independent of any outside (influence).”

This story will be updated.

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(Photo: Chuck Cook / USA Today)

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