FOX Sports NBA Analyst
It’s perhaps the most despised phrase in the NBA today: load management.
It is certainly the most misunderstood.
It is a collective term used to describe when an otherwise healthy player sits out a game, a player returning from injury, is limited in playing strength or it is announced at the start of a season that certain players will not play on consecutive nights.
All in the name of load management.
It’s a concept often derided privately by coaches and GMs, and not so privately by fans and ex-players – perhaps especially ex-players – as an excuse for today’s well-paid stars to take paid vacations.
I thought it small myself. But there were always two questions that nagged at me: Why doesn’t it seem to be working? And if it doesn’t work, why are NBA teams still using it?
The answer – based on my conversations with players who are either today’s rare ironborn or have played in both the bump-and-grind era and today’s no-touch track meeting – is: contrary to popular belief Today’s game is more physically demanding than ever.
“That’s a fair assessment,” says Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley, a 15-year-old vet who spent his first 12 seasons as part of the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Memphis Grizzlies, a team that skipped the time continuum seemed to be from the 1990s when most squads were content to run over opponents rather than go around them.
“I was part of the physical era where you could check and grind by hand, post and all that,” Conley said, smiling at the memory. “We were a physical team. That’s how we were. It was exhausting in a completely different way. You played through injuries but it was more bumps and bruises from being physically assaulted.
“Now you imagine running as fast as you can for 48 minutes and having to do that every night. There are more possessions, more ways to get these non-contact injuries. Guys have more calf strains, more hamstrings and stuff like that. We didn’t get them that often (before).”
Mike Conley, who was part of the Grizzlies’ resilient “Grit ‘n’ Grind” team, says the pace of today’s game is like “running as fast as you can for 48 minutes.” (Photo by Getty Images)
Overall, injuries in the NBA have increased. according to a study released last February, despite advances in sports medicine, nutrition, sleep patterns, exercise and, yes, stress management. Which suggests that all the progression couldn’t compensate for the higher physical demands of the game.
That wouldn’t come as a surprise to Warriors center Kevon Looney, one of five players to appear in all 82 games last season. This is his eighth season, and even in this relatively short span of time, he can attest that the game has become much more physically dynamic.
“They play in space more and cover a lot more ground, lock up, stop and walk a lot more,” he said. “If you were playing more of a halffield game, you had to hit more, but you were standing in one spot and playing in one area instead of having to fly all over the place. I know that as a big man I have a lot more ground to cover now than I did when I first came to the league.”
Looney’s first season was the last for Tim Duncan, who helped popularize – if not introduce – the concept of load management. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich scooped a fifth championship out of 37-year-old Duncan and 36-year-old Manu Ginobili by carefully managing their minutes throughout the 2013-14 season.
The strategy was inspired by Duncan and Ginobili’s advanced age and injury history, not analysis, but this was also the first season the NBA installed cameras in the rafters of each arena to track player movement throughout a game and to measure, including the distances they have run and their average speed in offense and defense.
Gregg Popovich, center, pioneered “load management” with Tim Duncan (right) and Manu Ginobili to expand the Spurs dynasty. (Photo by Getty Images)
There is no doubt that gamers today are running more and faster than ever before. In the first season the data was collected, 14 players ran an average of 2.5 miles or more per game. So far this year: 40 are at or above this mark.
Teams can also collect biometric data from players, ranging from reaction time to oxygen consumption and lactic acid levels, which will be used by medical staff to persuade players to take a night off.
“You have to take care of your body in different ways to keep up this pace that we’re at now, and they share a lot of information with you,” said Portland Trail Blazers’ Jerami Grant, now in his ninth season. “They show you how your body is exhausted. You can see how many steps you take on the pitch. You can see how you are slacking in the game and what might be causing it. For example, you might miss a shot because your legs are tired. They track everything.”
Some players are more receptive to this information than others.
“I’m still not used to it,” Conley said. “I want to play every time I can. i love to mature This is my favorite part. If I can skip an exercise or something, I say, ‘Yeah, ok.’ Games are the fun part. It takes a lot to put your pride and ego aside and say, ‘Hey, these guys know what they’re doing and get paid well to protect us from ourselves.'”
Warriors forward Draymond Green, in his 11th season, is now a champion of science. He started out as a guy who wore a suit every night, missed a total of seven regular-season games in his first four seasons and played all 82 games in his sophomore year.
But losing five straight runs to the Finals, mixed with information from sophomore health and performance director David Taylor, leading to a sixth NBA Finals appearance and a fourth championship, was enough to change Green’s opinion on the subject to change rest.
“Why do we have science, why do we have technology if we ignore it?” asked Green. “We have the best scientist in the game in Dave Taylor. Why should we ignore him? There are guys who have played in this league and tried to play all 82 games that can’t walk anymore. So toughness is what you make it.
“It’s a completely different kind of game today. We’re running up and down 70 times more per game than we used to. You can’t compare that. At the same time we could say, ‘Oh, well, guys used to be too slow and couldn’t keep up.’ That’s ridiculous too, isn’t it? It’s a different game.”
Green and Conley embody the shift in the way players think. But the bigger change might be in the team approach.
Chicago Bulls icon Michael Jordan played in all 82 games nine times in his 15-year career, including his very last season in which he turned 40 before the end. A broken foot in the third game of his sophomore season was among the shortened six.
In today’s game, the lottery-bound Bulls would have ruled him out for the season — just as the 76ers did when rookie Ben Simmons broke his foot in training camp — to protect their franchise cornerstone from re-injury and increase their chances of a touchdown improve number 1.
When the Bulls’ management tried to dissuade Jordan from coming back, they didn’t do a very good job. He returned in March to play the final 14 games of the regular season, only to pull Chicago into the playoffs and face the top-seeded Boston Celtics – against whom Jordan played 43, 53 and 39 minutes in vain to concede a sweep avoid.
Michael Jordan returned from a broken foot in his sophomore season to lead the Bulls to the playoffs. (Photo by Getty Images)
Conversely, LeBron James is in his 20th season. He’s only played once in all 82 games, but insists he starts each season with a desire to play as much as possible. The tracking data suggests he’s an expert at managing loads even when he’s in games, and minimizing how much ground he’s covering, especially off the ball. But all of that has allowed him to continue playing at an extremely high level, averaging 36 minutes per game at the age of 38.
“I think there’s a lot of people today, maybe they feel like they have more information, that they’re doing the right thing based on this whole new analytical thing,” Conley said. “When I first came in, we didn’t have any of that. You didn’t constantly have someone on your back saying, ‘You’re the man, you don’t have to play tonight’ or ‘You’re the man, we need to rest you to get ready for the playoffs.’ It was, “I have to play every night. They pay me all this money, I have to get out there and perform.” So another switch.
“I think the team is doing their best to get you playing. we get hurt We’ve got an ankle sprain that the average person might be out for two weeks, we’ll be back in two, three days. Some guys are honestly hurt and trying to get their way and when there’s a gray area and you ask the team, ‘Am I going or not?’ The team will tell you not to go. You will play it safer today than you did 15 years ago.
All of which makes Looney a flashback. After playing all 82 games and 22 playoff games last season, he has every intention of playing all 82 again this season — and hopefully as many postseason games as it takes to win another title. But he knows he has to convince Taylor and the rest of the Warriors’ medical staff to let him.
“I have these conversations all the time,” he said. “I’ve told them a couple of times, ‘No, I feel great, I’m fine,’ but they always say, ‘If you’re feeling something, if you feel like you need a day, take one. ‘ Or when they see my numbers land on the square, they say, ‘You might have to take one.’ Everyone thinks the players are trying to manage the load but it’s more a team thing, from the coaching staff, they want the boys to be ready and it’s a long season so they don’t want the boys to get hurt. I want to play every game.”
In other words, count Looney among those who are good at managing their own load.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
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