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What We Talk About When We Talk About “Load Management”

Nathaniel Friedman

“I got new shoulders.” That was how Paul George explained his performance in his first two games with the Clippers, and his first since undergoing shoulder surgery in the offseason. Last Thursday against the Pelicans, he had 33 points in 24 minutes, albeit in a losing effort. On Saturday, George went for 37 points in 20 minutes in a blowout against the Hawks. They were a reminder that the 10th-year wing is still one of the most terrifying players in the league. What these games weren’t, though, was a chance to get a glimpse at George and Kawhi Leonard on the court at the same time. Leonard sat out both games, and the game that followed on Monday, because of a knee contusion—not because he was unable to play, but as a precautionary measure.

This is indicative of the approach that the team has taken toward Leonard all season. The Clippers have only played 13 games thus far; Leonard has missed 4 of them. At this rate, he will appear in 56 games of the 82-game season. In the past, if Leonard were to spend this much a season sidelined with injury, it would deal a crippling blow to the Clippers’ championship hopes. But here, the team is deliberately sitting him to, in their mind, improve their chances of going all the way. And they’re fine with potentially losing any number of regular season to accomplish this. Winning now and winning later—the short-term and long-term of competition—aren’t just severed from each other. They’re placed into conflict with each other.

Welcome to the wonderful world of “load management,” a philosophy that has emerged as one of the major plot points of this young season. Its logic is simple: The first 82 games are an often meaningless slog and the playoffs are what really matters; having key players in peak condition for the postseason becomes a team’s highest priority; and because players are mere mortals whose bodies register wear and tear, giving them time to rest and recover becomes a no-brainer. What had made load management so controversial is that sitting a player of Leonard’s caliber makes it less likely that the Clippers will win. Teams are willing to risk dropping regular season contests because they are assuming that doing helps them in the long-term. They have convinced themselves that losing is in fact an important part of winning.

In theory, if a team loses too many regular season games, it could cost them home court advantage in the playoffs, or maybe even keep them out of the postseason altogether, which is why they are practical limits to load management. But the Clippers seem intent on seeing just how far they cannot push Leonard, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Leonard played only 9 games with the Spurs in 2017-18 due to a still-mysterious quad injury. Supposedly, he demanded a trade because of how the team handled, or mishandled, the situation. Last season, Leonard took 20 games off and proceeded to win a title. If the Clippers want a championship, replicating the Raptors’ approach becomes a no-brainer.

All of this makes total sense if you accept the premise of load management: that the sole purpose of an NBA team is to win only when doing so is absolutely necessary. But sports aren’t just about a competitive bottom line. They are also entertainment concerned very much with their financial bottom line. The backlash against load management has come from a consumer standpoint: If you, a fan, buy tickets to a game, or even just bother to watch one on your couch , you deserve to be entertained, and a large part of that is getting to see marquee players like Leonard. While there is a flimsy argument to be made that load management actually helps the product insofar as results in a higher-quality postseason, on a night-by-night basis it’s an active detriment to people enjoying the league, which is why, at least in theory, the league now reserves the right to fine teams who bench stars for key games without ample justification.

Embracing, or at least accepting, load management only makes sense if your sole concern is one single team’s pursuit of a title. Presumably, a die-hard homer could also see it as in their best interests. Nobody in Toronto is griping about games that Leonard missed last January. But they can only do so if they go through the looking glass and start thinking like management. Players and coaches have had a hand in popularizing the concept—the earliest, most high-profile examples were attributed to LeBron James and Gregg Popovich, not their teams’ front offices. Make no mistake, though—load management only holds sway because it has become an institutional strategy. Far from being capricious or arbitrary, this thinking is built into how front offices think about the players they employ, and even those they are considering employing the future.

For better or worse, though, thinking like management has become an increasingly prevalent feature of the way many fans, and members of the media, engage with the NBA. Everybody is potentially an expert. And if you want to be seen as an expert, nothing cements this status as quickly, or as facilely, as viewing basketball solely in terms of optimization and ultimate outcomes. Identifying with front offices becomes the goal, and rather than being seen as a concession or sacrifice, abdicating the fan’s perspective is an accomplishment—a badge of honor.

Financialization has become perhaps the dominant mode of commerce and culture, and at its most extreme, adopting management’s vantage point means viewing transactions and cap considerations as the real game, rather than what happens on the court. It’s depressing and sad that this possibility is even on the table (and from a political standpoint, downright dangerous when it turns into actually being pro-management when there’s conflict with players). Especially in the context of the NBA, entertainment isn’t frivolous. Winning and losing can be suffused with high drama and no shortage of emotion. It can also deliver on human interest. But the experience of watching a game, what makes it compelling throughout, is how much we are captivated by intangibles like creativity, style, and personality.

The experience of watching the NBA is very much about players being present—not in a “show up ready to win” way, but in terms of how immediate and compelling they are. This requires no conscious effort on anyone’s part; it’s practically built into the sport at any level, which is why load management just plain feels wrong. The NBA is meant to not only be experienced but enjoyed and this can’t happen to the fullest when players of note are conspicuously absent. Not only are we missing out. The absence itself become the focal point, a distraction from everything else happening on the court; the game exists only in the negative. If this what you want NBA games to be like, you’re not only turning your back on the soul of the game. You’re one step closer to becoming a ghoul yourself.

Of course, there’s one major flaw in this argument: That players themselves are in favor of load management. So far, there’s been zero indication that they’re resting when they would prefer to be in action. There is also an ancillary benefit to the popularity of load management: In the past, players who missed too much time could be labeled “injury-prone,” which often had an impact on future earnings. The blame for players sitting now lands squarely on management.
That players are on board with load management puts fans in an uncomfortable position. “They should perform even if they don’t want to” isn’t just an icky, potentially racialized place to land—one associated with the most conservative brand of sports fans.

But load management isn’t just about giving a guy the day off, or even methodically limiting their minutes. It operates on the assumption that players are finite resources to be meted out selectively. Never mind that this is a disheartening way to think about sports, which is supposed to be about nearly-superhuman individuals and/or their capacity to outdo themselves on a regular basis. If players can be conserved, they can also be exhausted, and a front office keen on optimization can also easily turn on a player when it’s determined that they are no longer capable of producing the desired output when they are in peak form. Players should be wary of load management because it sets an unreasonable benchmark. They are competing against an idealized version of themselves that could at any point come back to bite them.

That’s not to say that every front office resting players is nefarious. But the practice has the potential to blow up in their face, or at least feed into a version of the sport that puts them at a massive disadvantage. Players want to rest so they can exceed expectations. They want to be impossible to predict. By contrast, front offices increasingly want the game to be as predictable as possible so it can be mastered not through on-court talent and inspiration but by hitting on the right equation. Front office wannabes aren’t merely looking at the game from a novel vantage point. By adopting the terms of management, they’re siding with it. Given the way power works in the NBA, players should be thinking more critically about the practice; given the league’s history of driving a wedge between fans and players to manage public opinion, maybe fans should be suspicious of any framing that sets up an opposition between the two.

This isn’t just about good politics. For the most part, players and fans want the same thing: A lively, vibrant, exciting, NBA that never ceases to amaze and surprise us. There can be disagreements about how this is best realized. But when the alternative is a management-driven hellscape, fans (and media) would do well to ask themselves whose side they’re really on. And if they land on the side of management, they should be honest that they’re not trying to build up the sport. They’re actually actively working to undermine what makes it special. And the more sway they hold, the higher the chances are that they will destroy it.

Originally Appeared on GQ