NBA Season Preview

NBA Season Preview 2019-20: This might be the year of load management

Will Kawhi Leonard’s load-management plan with the Toronto Raptors spur a wave of copycats during the 2019-20 NBA season?

Kawhi Leonard might be a trendsetter.

The Toronto Raptors held Leonard out for 14 games last year for “load management,” according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, as he attempted to put a mysterious quadriceps injury behind him. That strategy paid off with the Raptors’ first-ever NBA championship, and Leonard credited it for keeping him fresh for the playoffs.

“It was big,” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols during the Finals. “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.”

Leonard’s virtuoso performance throughout the playoffs could inspire some load-management copycats in the 2019-20 season. In particular, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid appears likely to follow in Leonard’s footsteps.

After logging only 31 games through his first three seasons, Embiid has played 63 and 64 games over the past two years, respectively. However, he has yet to enter the playoffs fully healthy. A fluky orbital bone fracture sidelined him for Games 1 and 2 of the Sixers’ opening-round series against the Miami Heat two years ago, while a lingering knee issue and a pair of illnesses limited him throughout this past postseason.

The Sixers signed Al Horford to a four-year, $109 million contract this summer in part to give themselves an insurance policy at center if Embiid goes down again. But during a press conference to introduce the team’s free-agent signees, general manager Elton Brand made it clear that Horford and third-string center Kyle O’Quinn will also help to keep Embiid’s regular-season workload in check.

“When I spoke to Joel [during exit interviews] … he understood that our goal is to deliver the best Joel Embiid to the postseason,” Brand said when asked whether Embiid would be amenable to reducing his minutes. “So whatever that takes, he’s on board for that.

“And having these options [Horford and O’Quinn] —  we did fall off a cliff once Joel was off the court, especially defensively — so having these great options now bodes well for our team success. And he’s on board, for sure.”

Embiid may be among the most likely load-management candidates in 2019-20, but he’s far from the only one.

A startup company that offers reimbursement plans for tickets to games where top stars sit projects LeBron James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest, according to Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports. The soon-to-be 35-year-old James played a career-low 55 games last season in part because of a groin injury that sidelined him for more than a month, which may cause the Los Angeles Lakers to tread lightly with his regular-season minutes.

Load management isn’t limited to intentionally resting players for an entire game, either. Teams may be more proactive about dialing back their stars’ minutes on a game-to-game basis. (In other words, pulling an anti-Tom Thibodeau.)

The Houston Rockets appear ready to jump aboard that train.

“Yeah, [load management] is always [part of the strategy],” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told radio host Dan Patrick in late July (via Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic). … It’ll be a very put-together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.”

Rockers star James Harden has averaged 37.1 minutes per game throughout his seven seasons in Houston, which leads the league over that span. By trading for Harden’s former teammate, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets gave themselves another former MVP who can carry the load on any given night if Harden needs rest.

The Washington Wizards are eyeing such a strategy with Bradley Beal, too.

Beal averaged a league-high 36.9 minutes while playing all 82 games last season, although the Wizards approached him about sitting out down the stretch as they skidded toward a 32-50 record.

“I mean, we were going nowhere at the end of the season pretty fast,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated in August. “And I’m like, ‘Brad, you know what, I appreciate everything you’ve given me the last couple of years. And this year we’re not making the playoffs, we’re out. You want to like chill out the last couple of weeks and rest? And he said, ‘You know what, I signed up to be the leader of this team and do it every night.’”

This season, the Wizards’ new-look front office will take a big-picture approach to how much wear and tear Beal and his teammates are enduring.

“As we learn to work smarter and we learn to add the layers of technology that we have access to, that will blend very well for us,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. “We’ll have a practice plan, and within that practice plan almost individualize it to every single player.”

Load management might not be for everyone. Some stars of yesteryear are openly bristling about what could soon become a growing trend.

“The only time I took a game off is when I couldn’t walk,” Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant told Frank Isola of The Athletic in March. “The thing about taking games off is your games, your seasons in your career go by really, really quickly. So, you want to make sure you don’t miss any of those moments.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also voiced some concern about resting players, particularly toward the end of the season with playoff races hanging in the balance.

“Sometimes it’s science, but sometimes it’s art,” Silver said. “I think a fair point from fans could be if ultimately the science suggests that 82 games is too many games for these players, maybe you shouldn’t have an 82-game season. I accept that, and that’s something we’ll continue to look at.”

However, Silver said it would likely take five or six years before any wholesale changes go into effect, which means load management may become a growing trend between now and then.

Meanwhile, the pioneer who might spark a wave of load-management copycats is entering this season with the intention of playing more games than he did last year.

“It’s just one of those things you take down the road and see how your body’s feeling,” Leonard said during his introductory press conference with the Clippers. “It’s a day-to-day thing. If anything comes up — you know how the NBA season is, it’s a battle, 82 games — but the goal right now is to play the season.”

Next: Meet the 2018 NBA 25-under-25

Since the NBA’s rings-or-bust culture places an increasingly large emphasis on the playoffs, a regular-season matchup against a bottom-feeding team all but begs for stars to take a night off. Silver is right to be concerned about such a trend — might the ubiquitous threat of stars resting deter fans from buying tickets? — but Leonard’s experience with the Raptors last season suggests the payoff might be worth any collateral damage.

If players do begin to follow in Leonard’s footsteps and take more nights off this season, it could affect everything from the MVP race to playoff seeding. But if it means more stars will enter the playoffs feeling refreshed and healthier than they have in years past, it could set the stage for an all-time great postseason.

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