Are we still talking about this? Apparently.
After Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard missed one half of a back-to-back on national television Wednesday night, with buzz-term “load management” once again listed as the reasoning for the second straight week, battle lines were re-drawn. Old-timers who lifted weights with their teeth in their spare time back in their day lined up to take a shot at all these soft players in today’s game; modern analytical types and those closer to the current game pushed back, often with much futility.
Whatever your angle, can we just involve a bit more logic here?
First and foremost: The theme of load management – or rest games, or days off, or whatever you want to call it – is not unique to the NBA. In fact, it’s been a longtime standby in several other sports.
Consider modern hockey goaltenders, perhaps the best analogy available here. Within the last decade or so, the hockey community as a whole has realized the diminishing returns of overtaxing goalies within a given season. It’s to the point where you virtually never see an NHL goalie play games on back-to-back nights – even the best at the position in the league hover in the mid-50s or perhaps the very low-60s for games played each year, while their backups take on the other 25% or so of the load.
Is playing goalie in a 60-minute hockey game – one where you get regular breaks and spend large chunks of game action standing around doing nothing – a heavier workload than playing a mid-30s number of minutes as a high-volume NBA star? We obviously can’t say precisely, but it sure doesn’t feel like that huge a gap.
And yet, the NHL, a league where it’s still cool to remove your gloves and bash in the brains of an opponent in a consensual fistfight and still not be ejected from the game, has come around here. Even the sport’s most ardent old-timers have mostly given up complaining about it.
That’s not the only example, of course. Starting pitchers in baseball typically take four full days off in between starts; many of the best are magically able to pitch on short or no rest in the playoffs, so they certainly can perform in these circumstances – they just generally aren’t forced to. Football players get a week off in between games because it’s accepted that their bodies need the recovery time.
To upset fans who might miss their favorite star: Yeah, it sucks. No one is saying you have to be thrilled.
You do have to approach this like any other entertainment-based consumer product, though. There’s a reason they put all that fine print on the backs of ticket stubs: This isn’t a guarantee of anything.
Ever gotten amusement park tickets on a special advanced promotion, then showed up to realize your favorite ride was down for the day? Sorry, you don’t get a refund on that. Broadway tickets often cost thousands for a single show, and good luck getting a popular ticket on short notice – but are they giving out discounts on nights when the lead character is played by the understudy rather than the primary actor/actress? We all know the answer.
Some traditionalists may not accept the idea of load management compared to a specific injury as a reasonable excuse, but that’s simply not at issue here. Players and trainers paid millions of dollars to be in tune with their bodies and performance expectations are more trustworthy than your anecdotal opinions about guys “toughing it out.” For those of us on the other side of the curtain, it’s functionally the same thing: Part of the risk of being a consumer.
Those suggesting players be fined for resting games – or even sillier folks actually painting such behavior as outright fraud – are both missing the point and edging toward some pretty brazen entitlement. These are people first, entertainment vehicles a distant second. How would you feel if someone suggested you got fined for calling in sick to work with a legitimate illness?
Finally, as astute NBA observer Ben Taylor pointed out during the latest round of social media boxing on this subject, there’s a big flip side to demanding 82 games out of every star player: Longevity.
Diehard fans of Bill Walton probably wish he’d been exposed to a bit more load management in retrospect. The same goes for Brandon Roy, Larry Bird or any of hundreds of other guys you could name who saw their careers cut short by lingering physical issues. Guys often spend the final years of their careers mustering up the strength to play in every other game – would you rather have that, or a few games off here or there during their primes that lead to several consistent years when they age?
Again, there’s no perfect solution here. But the goal of every NBA team is to win a championship, not appease every fan. Teams and the league do their best to blend these priorities wherever possible, but sometimes it just isn’t.
This is no different from any other major consumer entertainment area, at least not one that involves humans achieving feats in a live setting. No one is saying don’t grumble; beyond that, let’s be a bit more realistic and simply move along.