Unpacking The Controversy Behind The ‘Load Management’ Strategy That’s Tearing The NBA Apart

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard

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It’s safe to say professional sports have come a long way since the days when the best baseball player on the planet drank four whiskey gingers for breakfast and one of the starting quarterbacks in the first-ever Super Bowl geared up for the second half with the help of a bottle of Fresca and a cigarette.

In this day and age, players (and the franchises they play for) tend to place a bit more emphasis on nutrition as part of the multi-pronged plan all parties involved typically rely on to stay at the top of their game.

Most professional athletes have plenty of resources at their disposal in the form of the nutritionists, trainers, and therapists teams employ to ensure they have everything they need to stay in shape. With that said, there’s only so much you can to do to address the wear and tear that comes with being in that line of work.

That reality is manifested in the “load management” strategy that’s become increasingly popular in the NBA in recent years.

When you consider a number of notable players have seen their careers cut short due to injuries and ailments inextricably linked with overuse, it’s easy to understand why a number of veteran stars feel it’s in their best interest to voluntarily ride the bench in the hopes of maximizing their longevity.

If the people who sign their massive paychecks give them the green light, you’d think there wouldn’t be any major issues. However, it’s safe to say that is not the case based on how much backlash there’s been to the mere concept of load management.

So how has a seemingly straightforward issue become so controversial? Let’s take a look.

When did load management start to become popular in the NBA?

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“Load management” may be a relatively new term, but it isn’t a particularly revolutionary concept or one that was invented overnight.

Playing 82 games per season in cities around North America can take its toll, and at its core, the approach is akin to a coach pulling his best players during garbage time in a blowout or designating them as a “healthy scratch” after clinching a playoff spot to give them a little bit of time to rest before the start of the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard was really the first superstar to take that kind of planning to what was arguably its natural conclusion when he embraced load management toward the start of the 2019 NBA campaign. However, it didn’t take long for the Clippers forward to start catching some heat.

Michael Jordan made it very clear he expected every member of the Hornets to play every single game and LeBron James seemed to scoff at the concept he derided while saying it “doesn’t make any sense” (it’s worth noting Derrick Rose suggested Leonard may have taken things a bit too far but suggested his career would’ve panned out differently with load management).

Adam Silver and the NBA also made it very clear it was not a fan of the strategy, as it hit the Clippers with a $50,000 fine after Doc Rivers admitted Leonard was perfectly capable of playing in a game he nonetheless sat out.

While that move was intended to give Los Angeles (and every other team in the NBA) some incentive to move away from load management, it really just encouraged a subtler approach that continues to be a fairly contentious issue more than three years later (as evidenced by the recent reactions to the Warriors benching Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson during a contest against the Cavaliers on the road).

Why is load management so controversial?

There is a little bit of nuance when it comes to dissecting the blowback to load management, although the biggest factor is one at the core of countless controversies:$$$$$.

As previously discussed, load management shouldn’t be a major issue (at least in theory) if franchises are fine with paying players to not play in a game. However, things get a little messier when you start to examine the wider-reaching ramifications that are a bit hard to ignore.

The NBA’s decision to fine the Clippers and institute new regulations concerning situations where otherwise healthy guys are permitted to rest is primarily a financial one. The policy it rolled out to combat the approach in 2020 didn’t even attempt to obscure that reality; rules that mandate players must appear in games that air in primetime or on national television make it obvious Silver and Co. view ratings as paramount to everything else.

The league’s primal urge to attract as many eyeballs as possible isn’t limited to TV broadcasts, as the almighty “Fan Experience” is routinely trotted out as another key reason load management has a detrimental impact on the product the NBA prides itself on.

Richard Jefferson said as much with a viral anecdote he shared concerning the time he attended a Spurs game by himself growing up because his family could only afford to buy him a single ticket for Christmas. While it was an undoubtedly extreme example, the crux of that argument is that NBA players have an obligation to play whenever they’re able in order to appease and entertain the spectators who spent their hard-earned money to attend a game in person.

When you consider load management has only really been “A Thing” in the NBA for a few years, there’s still not a ton of definitive evidence concerning whether or not it’s as beneficial as the players and teams who’ve started to subscribe to it seem to believe.

Only time will tell if the tides will eventually begin to turn in either direction, but as things currently stand, it seems doubtful it (and the backlash) are going anywhere any time soon.