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
Fans often want to ask: Who's in control? And
the difficult answer is that the power dynamics change in different
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
"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
"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
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
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
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,
"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
“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
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
The NBA doesn't supervise the entirety of
American youth hoops, which means it can't stop one of the root
"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."