Want a surefire way to get almost any NBA coach to roll his eyes, snort or make some other derisive gesture? Mention load management.
That is, as long as he's sure no one is looking. To be caught dismissing the practice would be "career suicide," says one former head coach who is now an assistant. As some owners and team executives see it, managing a player's physical exertion over the course of a season to avoid injury is simply smart business aimed at protecting a team's most valuable asset—its star players—from being put out of commission.
Sounds like a worthwhile enterprise, right?
It can be. Much like using analytics to build rosters and devise game plans, load management offers another scientific tool to be used in the art of winning basketball games. The issue for most coaches (and at least a half-dozen team executives who spoke to B/R about the issue) is that what began as a measure limited to older stars on playoff-bound teams or players with a checkered injury history has practically become a leaguewide policy liberally applied to players regardless of age or condition.
No coach or team executive was willing to challenge the veracity of the movement on the record. Convincing players that a team values their health and well-being as much as winning games and generating revenue has always been a balancing act. The rift between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs over whether a quad issue should have prevented him from playing—an impasse that ultimately led to Leonard's move to Toronto—is just the latest example of what can happen when a player perceives that equation to be out of whack.
The fear of suffering the same fate as San Antonio has led most teams to show hypersensitivity to their players' health, not only by reducing games played, minutes per game and the number and length of practices, but also by creating health and performance departments capable of addressing a player's every physical need.
Rest assured, though, a large faction—possibly even the majority—of coaches and team executives is convinced it has gone too far.
"All we do is find reasons for guys not to work," one team executive says. "It's getting absurd. And the younger the league gets, which will happen even more when the draft rule changes, it's going to have an even greater [negative] impact. In what world are you not expected to go to work every day?
"Back when it was Patrick Ewing standing in a garbage can of ice water, there were no days off. But now that you have physical therapists and acupuncturists and masseuses and deep tissue experts and dry needlers, now suddenly you have guys who can't go through an hour-and-a-half practice and play a game the next day. It's a joke."
It's also true, however, that the medical arms of NBA franchises have expanded exponentially since we last saw Ewing's sweat-drenched jersey. Twenty years ago, teams generally employed an athletic trainer and a strength and conditioning coach, plus had several local physicians who were identified as team doctors, all well down the management masthead. Now? The Washington Wizards just overhauled their administrative structure, and a team source says general manager Tommy Sheppard, chief planning and operations officer Sashi Brown and Daniel Medina, chief of athlete care and performance, are on the same tier. The masthead includes a half-dozen employees assigned to player health and performance.
Between analytics and internal player health departments, who plays and how much is increasingly being determined outside the coaching staff. Yet it's the coaches who must meet one of two expectations to keep their jobs: Win games or, if they have a particularly young roster, develop their talent.
"These organizations have become so big that the territoriality in these departments influences these decisions," the team executive says. "The GMs and everybody else has to back up the players with the agents, because you don't want to get into the situation where the player says, 'If I don't get a couple days off, I'll need to go get a second opinion on that ankle.' Basically what it comes down to is you're completely reliant on the player's integrity to know whether or not they need a break."
Leonard inadvertently has become the face of both the perceived good and bad load-management dividends. He and the Toronto Raptors successfully navigated their way to a championship—and Finals MVP honors for Kawhi—by not having him play in the regular season whenever concerns arose about aggravating the right quadriceps issue that limited him to nine games the previous season with the Spurs. The precaution resulted in his missing 22 regular-season games as the Raptors finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference but allowed Leonard to play in all 24 of their playoff games and knock off the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
"When you love to play, you play," says Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who had missed 25 games in his career coming into this, his eighth season. "People give Kawhi a lot of shit for playing every other game, but I feel like he is dealing with something, where he's playing when he feels healthy enough to play. So it depends. He might have an injury that he shouldn't be playing with and he's playing through something. He's managing it to the best of his ability."
The problem is, no one is sure the story of Leonard and the Raptors is proof that every team should proactively reduce a player's number of regular-season games. Leonard's reticence to speak with the media and public, combined with confusing team status reports on his health over the course of his career, has prompted some to suggest that missing games—including 10 this season already—is more gratuitous than necessary. The team executive suggests that some star players now see qualifying for load management as a status symbol.
While proponents would argue it helps prevent long-term injuries and increases the likelihood stars are ready and available to play well in the even more grueling postseason, the Warriors' attempt to preserve Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during the regular season didn't prevent them from suffering major injuries in the Finals.
"It used to be, 'I don't have to play in preseason games, I don't have to do every drill in practice,'" the team executive says. "Now it's, 'I don't have to play 82 games. I'm more valuable than one win here or there. We can give up a couple of losses when I sit because I can give it back to you threefold because that's how big my impact is.'"
While no one is sure exactly how effective load management is, the primary tools—rest and restricted activity—are producing very real consequences in the form of lost games, disgruntled fans and unhappy broadcast and sponsorship partners.
It used to be, 'I don't have to play in preseason games, I don't have to do every drill in practice.' Now it's, 'I don't have to play 82 games. I'm more valuable than one win here or there.'
— An NBA team executive
A second former head coach believes playing and practicing less actually may be inducing injuries in players because they are not conditioned to deal with the unique stress of game action. Players returning from injury often talk about how there is no way to truly replicate the physical demands of playing in a game other than by playing.
"A lot of the injuries that have occurred can be directly attributed to not playing as much as they need to play," the former coach contends.
Some players agree. Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea, 35, is in his 14th NBA season. He played well over a decade for the Puerto Rican national team. He has never heard load management referenced in international competition.
"I think we're taking it over the top," Barea says. "LeBron [James], he can do whatever he needs to do, for as much as he's played. Or if you have a history of injury and you have a plan at the start of the season, that's one thing. But this is your job. If you're a young guy, you have no reason to load manage."
But sometimes it's not the player who makes the decision. Detroit Pistons center Thon Maker, 22, spent his first two-and-a-half seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. A self-professed gym rat, Maker was doing everything he could to justify the Bucks' selection of him as the 10th pick of the 2016 draft—coming in early to work out, doing extra lifting and often returning at night with an assistant coach to shoot. Concerned by what the biometric tracking device Maker and the other Bucks wore in practice was saying about his condition while working out, the medical staff insisted he cut back on his workouts.
Maker, intelligent and thoughtful, complied but struggled with the idea that how he felt—or what he thought he needed to do to perform his best—wasn't taken into account. "You know your body," he says. "You feel it. And it's not like your body is being [biometrically] screened every day. My 'in shape' is not the same as most people's. I have to work extra hard or I feel like I'm slow or sluggish. I feel like a day off throws my timing off."
Maker also believes the mental challenge of battling through a workout when he's already fatigued is valuable. "There are just days your body has to grind," he says. "But those are the times that get you ready for the tough points in the game or pressure situations when you're not feeling your best."
His aversion to interaction with the athletic training staff began in high school in Canada after he accepted regular treatment for a sore ankle. "I noticed that there were two extra teammates coming in and then three extra teammates," he says. "My coach said to me: 'Your teammates watch your every single move. If you're in the training room all the time, they're going to be in there too.'"
That can be the case in the NBA as well; how a team approaches the subject of load management can have a lot to do with the approach of its best player. Both the Rockets (James Harden, PJ Tucker) and Blazers (Lillard and CJ McCollum) have two players in the league's top 10 for average minutes per game, and the Toronto Raptors have three (Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet).
Lillard made his skepticism of unorthodox offseason training methods clear in a hilarious video, believing that load management in the offseason is as critical as it is during the season. When he first came into the league, he played plenty of pickup in the summer, but by his second season, he felt the effects. "When the season started, I just felt, not burnt out, but I wasn't fresh," he says. "And then the third year it was the same thing. My body would ache."
Now his offseason basketball activity is limited to expanding his repertoire of shots, ball-handling and other individual skills.
"I don't play pickup all summer," he says. "That's where players could start off with their load management. You see all these tapes with guys playing in pro-ams and pickup games, and then we get to the season and it's load management. I know it's a long season. I play a lot of minutes. There's a lot expected of me. So it's my responsibility to take that into consideration with my training and what I'm doing.
"I work out. I box. I swim. I lift. … I start playing pickup with the team right before camp."
Everything Lillard does—and doesn't do—is designed to have him at peak condition at tipoff. "Load management in-season comes when we have practice days," Lillard says. "I get in the reps I need, and then I get off the court. … If we have an off day, I get a massage, I get in the cold tub, I stay off my feet, I drink a lot of water, I get sleep. Stuff like that. I stay in the house instead of being out and about moving around all the time. I think there are ways we can manage what we go through as players without saying, 'I'm not playing tonight.' You just have to be smart, man."
I don't play pickup all summer. That's where players could start off with their load management.
—Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard
Breaking his foot at Weber State helped him understand the difference between pushing through fatigue and breaking down his body. The Blazers don't dictate his routine, but he keeps them informed on what he's doing so that their plan and his are incorporated.
"I discuss it with our [health and performance] staff, but a lot of what I do is me," he says. "They don't tell me when to get in the cold tub, but they know what I'm doing, what I've already done, so they can tailor what we do because they already know what I've put my body through. They have to know that, so they can be best served. A lot of people don't take the time to have that kind of detail and focus."
It's ironic that the Spurs lost Leonard to a dispute over his physical condition since coach Gregg Popovich and the organization are held responsible for having resting players become a leaguewide epidemic. As of 2017, Popovich had benched players because of rest 113 times, nearly triple anyone else. His method, while relatively novel, was understandable with a team built around three current or future Hall of Famers: Tim Duncan, who retired in 2016 at 40; Manu Ginobili, who retired in 2018 at 41; and Tony Parker, who retired this summer at 37.
"Pop is the leader in the sports of America for resting players," former Spurs forward Richard Jefferson says.
With 10 other teams led by a coach or high-ranking executive who worked under Popovich in some capacity, opposing GMs see his approach, including to load management, being replicated. One former coach even suggested it has created a competitive advantage for the Spurs.
"They all say that: 'We're going to do things the way the Spurs do them,'" the former coach says. "'Spurs' way' is a verb. Pop's greatest trick was getting everybody to rest their young stars. He wants you to rest your young players because those are the ones who need to develop."
Aside from disappointing fans, sponsors and broadcast partners, the team executive sees load management as an intentional manipulation of the league's competitive balance. The better teams can potentially influence who they see in the playoffs by when and against whom they rest their stars.
"Two teams are playing for the eighth playoff spot," the team executive says. "The margin for error is one or two wins. You don't know where that win is going to come from. When it came down to one game between Denver and Minnesota a few years ago, I guarantee you can find a game or two where one of them benefited from a superstar sitting against one or the other team."
One team not likely to put a premium on rest is the Miami Heat. At least, not as long as Pat Riley is in South Beach. When Riley started his career as a head coach with the Lakers in the 1980s, he quickly developed a reputation for putting his teams through boot-camp workouts, to the point that some free agents balked at playing for him. The focus on conditioning and physical preparation has not waned with Riley as the Heat's team president. Perhaps it's no accident that Jimmy Butler, whose commitment to preparation and playing games is on par with Lillard's, has fit in so well with the Heat. Or that they have been the league's biggest surprise thanks in part to the quick maturation of rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, second-year forward Duncan Robinson and third-year center Bam Adebayo.
"In Miami, they had pre-practice," says Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Johnson, who now plays for Spurs disciple Monty Williams but spent his first four-and-a-half seasons with the Heat. "If you were a young guy or guy who just came in and had to learn what was going on, they made sure to teach you the concepts in practice before practice. They take that to another level. Player development was almost a daily thing. You were going to be in there and get a good sweat. If we had days in between games, we'd scrimmage. Here we scrimmage, but there we called it 'Braces and Mouthguards.' You were taped and ready to go.
"I remember once we were having trouble with a stretch 5. I can't remember who it was—Kevin Love, somebody like that—but he just killed us. The whole night we were coming into the huddle saying it's too hard to drop in and then close out to a big. We have to switch. The whole night, that's all we kept saying. The next day? For at least an hour, it was all about having the big drop and sprint out to a big. And then the whole time we heard [from the coaches], 'Oh, but I thought we couldn't do it.' If there was something we had to work on, when it came to load management, there was no such thing."
For all the advances in identifying and developing talent through analytical and medical advancements, then, it would appear a team's success still relies on an age-old attribute: trust. Trust that everyone has the same goal; trust that everyone has everyone else's best interests in mind along with their own.
"When it comes right down to it," the former coach says, "you've got to have talented players who buy into what you're trying to do." And how you're trying to do it.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast, Bucher & Friends, with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.