Here's the reality of the NBA's perceived 'load management crisis'

Here's the reality of the NBA's perceived 'load management crisis'

Isaac Mourier is the director of performance nutrition and sports science at Impact Basketball, one of the most prestigious independent training organizations for elite pro basketball players. He's spent time as a consultant for the Sacramento Kings and as a nutritionist for Georgia athletics, and he played pro basketball in Germany.

So while Mourier cannot speak for everyone in the NBA, his next statement carries weight:

"I've never met a player that doesn't want to play," Mourier told Basketball News. "Never, in my career as a player, as a practitioner, have I ever met a player that does not want to play. So that's a myth."

The NBA's perceived "load management crisis" has only sparked louder outrage this season from fans, some media and even former players. Charles Barkley has called the trend "disrespectful to the game." Kendrick Perkins has labeled the mental toughness of today's players as "softer than funeral music." While these two are certainly controversial voices at the very least, they are significant influences in the sport's discourse.

Barkley and Perkins, among many others, are also warping the true hows and whys of load management. 

Today's NBA game is more physically taxing than ever, and among those in the league, it's barely a debate. 

"I was part of the physical era, where you could hand-check and grind, post up and all that," Mike Conley told Fox Sports in January. "We were a physical team. It’s who we were. That was taxing in a whole other way. You played through injuries, but it was more bumps and bruises because you were being physically assaulted.

"Now it’s like, imagine running as fast as you can for 48 minutes and having to do that every night. There are more possessions, more opportunities to get these non-contact injuries. Guys are having more calf strains, more hamstrings and stuff like that. We weren’t getting those as much (before)."

Kevon Looney backs Conley up in that article, and Mourier supports them both. He says that the "physicality" of the old-school, post-centric game is much different from today's fast pace that wears out the body with more muscle contractions.

"What may look less physically taxing to the eye, in terms of less bumps and bruises and people getting knocked over — I think you're actually having the opposite effect on the body, where these distances covered, the speed at which they're covered and the changes of directions are far more taxing on the body," Mourier said.

Today, teams can quantify those stresses. Mourier explains that players often jump on force plates and see how their power generated will change with fatigue throughout a season. Hormones and proteins found in blood testing can signal muscle damage or inflammation. Teams use GPS tracking and camera systems to monitor players' wear and tear even in practices. The data paints a collective picture of an athlete's overall load during the season.

Importantly, this data isn't hidden by doctors — it typically is part of an ongoing conversation throughout the year. Building trust between players and medical staffers is crucial to injury management. That way, players can trust the data and doctors can respect the athlete's motivations.

"There's a number of data points that you will track until it gets to the point where we have to stop," Mourier said. "It's not like, 'Hey, we've just noticed something and you're not gonna play tonight.' It will be something that's been in the works — overall wellness scores, looking at that force plate data — it will be a trend, which is happening over time, and it's got to a point where it's like, 'Okay, we really have to do this.'

"It's not taken lightly because, ultimately, everybody's job there is to make sure that people can play every night."

Fans often want to ask: Who's in control? And the difficult answer is that the power dynamics change in different organizations.

Mourier says that superstars' voices will naturally have more influence, but that college staffs have more control over player rest than NBA teams. Others in the NBA have observed that teams do hold serious decision-making power.

"I do know on occasion that it’s not the player’s choice [to rest]," New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. told Basketball News.

"On the whole, I think people are on the same page, especially when it comes to our [Impact Basketball] guys on [NBA] teams," Mourier said. "I've never come across someone saying, 'They made me sit down; I wanted to play and I couldn't.'"

Seth Partnow works for StatsBomb and writes for The Athletic, and was formerly the Milwaukee Bucks' director of basketball research, working adjacent to the sports scientists within the organization. He said in his general experience, trust in both data and relationships is a huge part of reaching decisions to rest. 

"I think that the impetus for resting overwhelmingly comes from the medical and front-office side," Partnow told Basketball News. "I think that part of the increased comfort players have with revealing that information is maybe an increased willingness to take that advice."

Partnow explained that teams often boil down decision-making for rest to a "risk versus reward" scale. Does Player X need to play this specific game for the sake of the team, and is it worth the risk of a potential injury that could threaten playoff availability? 

"We're going to be judged on how well we do in the playoffs," Partnow said. "And more of a bigger factor than a regular-season win or two is, 'Are my good players able to play?'"

That balance does not include the weight of the fan experience — a valid criticism within the conversation. Mourier, originally from England, remembers attending his first NBA game in person between the Miami Heat and Washington Wizards and being disappointed when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade didn't suit up. NBA tickets can be a significant investment for fans and families; understandably, they would be bummed when a star rests.

But "risk vs. reward" applies to the league's approach too, as evidenced by its lack of action on anything surrounding load management. Others, including a recent conversation between The Athletic's staff members, have clamored for more transparency around injuries as at least a starting point.

“This isn’t a new issue. There’s nothing particularly happening this season that we haven’t seen happening over the last several seasons," Adam Silver said in February. "I understand it from a fan standpoint that if you are particularly buying tickets to a particular game and that player isn’t playing. I don’t have a good answer for that other than this is a deep league with incredible competition."

One motivator gaining traction is the idea of minimum-games-played requirements for season awards. Shams Charania has reported that both the league and the National Basketball Players Association like the idea. But many do not, including Mourier.

"I think that opens up a pretty dangerous can of worms, because if you have somebody that's really not in a position where they're ready to play — we have to start looking at them as humans as opposed to just athletes," Mourier said. "If they're in a position where they are really not ready to play, they're feeling sore or there's an injury, and they're creeping up on that cut-off for games and they're about to play, and it's gonna mean that they're not going to get home, they can't put food on the table for their family or can't support the the different needs that they have, then we have a human issue."

Another common suggestion is to simply shorten the schedule, be it to 70 games, 65 games or whatever makes sense. It would lighten the workload for players and possibly address some of the concerns about the value of the regular season along the way. But Silver didn't seem excited.

“If we thought it made sense to reduce the number of games, we would. But there’s no data right now that suggests, as I said, based on some prior experiments or even as we look at the data over the course of the season and when players get injured, it isn’t... You would think that it would be the case that injuries would increase as the season goes on, and that’s not necessarily it either," Silver said.

Partnow echoes Silver's stance as a reason for the league shrugging its shoulders. There just isn't hard proof that the change wouldn't lead to an obvious loss of revenue from dropping 200-plus contests.

"Measuring how that sort of loss of — I don't know, if you want to call it loss of trust — might longer-term affect the per-game revenue, that's tough math to do, but I think that's the concern," Partnow added.

And even if the league did shrink the schedule, games are not the only way athletes are physically taxed during the year.

“I think the biggest thing [fans don't notice] would just be trying to manage injuries and inflammation while traveling via airplane," Nance Jr. said. "That always seems to exacerbate most problems.”

“Fans can’t imagine playing 82 games in different cities all across the country and the physical toll it takes on your body, even without injuries," added NBA veteran Etan Thomas. "It’s difficult for most fans to really understand.”

Mourier says that pros need at least 48-to-72 hours between high-level competition for their bodies to replenish with proper nutrients. That's not consistently happening under the current schedule, and travel doesn't help.

"All of the factors which are not directly related to after the ball is thrown up at the tip-off — so sleep, travel, all of that other stuff — how can we influence those things to put the players in a more favorable spot to be able to go and perform every night? I think that's where we start," Mourier suggested.

Load management is the best strategy NBA teams have to contain injuries, but it isn't stopping them from happening. Studies are showing that NBA players get hurt more than ever. Partnow warns not to assume rest every time a star is out briefly; many of the smaller cases are still legitimate injuries. 

The findings hint at a scarier truth: What if the NBA can't do anything about it? As ESPN's Baxter Holmes uncovered, AAU and youth sports are taking major tolls on players' bodies before they even reach the pro level. Current pros are torn on if the grind of year-round youth basketball was worth it.

"I agree that kids are being overworked at a young age,” Chicago Bulls big man Nikola Vucevic told HoopsHype in 2019. “Parents push kids too hard to succeed and hire all these fake basketball coaches who don’t teach them how to play the game the right way. Kids have to have fun first while they play, and not [have someone] make it a business for them right away."

The NBA doesn't supervise the entirety of American youth hoops, which means it can't stop one of the root problems.

"Yes, absolutely [it's worrisome]," Partnow said. "I mean, on some level, it's not just that youth sports are out of our control. Youth sports are out of control."

So, NBA teams and players have more data than ever to manage a sport that is more physcially demanding than ever. But the league doesn't have the data to comfortably make a big change, and the frustration only grows.

At what point does the NBA stop waiting for numeric proof to force change, and take the risk for the sake of its players and fans?

"That's a political question. I don't know," Partnow said. "The longer [load management] becomes front and center of the conversation, the shorter that timespan is. But if something intervening happens that takes the focus off, and now we're talking about this other thing, then it loses salience and it kind of subsides...

"It seems like this [conversation] has been pretty continuous for the last couple months, which is probably the longest I can remember it being sort of a constant."

NBA News
Kids KN95 Masks
Kids KN95 Masks
Kids KN95 Masks
Latest Injuries
Goran Dragic
Dragic is questionable for Monday's (Jan. 23) game against Atlanta.
Chimezie Metu
Metu is questionable for Monday's (Jan. 23) game against Memphis.
Immanuel Quickley
Quickley did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Toronto.
Michael Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Oklahoma City.
Deandre Ayton
Ayton did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Memphis.
OG Anunoby
Anunoby did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against New York.
Kristaps Porzingis
The Wizards announced that Porzingis is week-to-week with a sprained left ankle.
Landry Shamet
Shamet did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Memphis.
Nikola Jokic
Jokic did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against Oklahoma City.
Dalano Banton
Banton did not play in Sunday's (Jan. 22) game against New York.
KN95 Masks
Sexy Lingerie
Subscribe to our newsletter
Follow Us
Download Our App!
Stay up-to-date on all things NBA
Download the App on the App Store
Download the App on the Google Play Store
Copyright © 2020. All Rights Reserved.
NBA News & Rumors