There’s nothing more annoying than paying for a ticket to go and see your favourite team play at Home or Away and the star players are sitting it out.
Now understandably, players get sick and they get injured. They sit out even if they’re healthy because players are humans, they have lives away from the court, the field and the rink.
But what about the decision to sit out of games when the excuse is lame or even unjustified? What if the coach is looking at the big picture and less about the customer’s entertainment?
It brings us to an old nugget NBA discussion about Load Management. For Point Guard Anthony Edwards, ‘Just play man.’
What did Michael say?
It was Michael Jordan who predicted somewhat correctly that roughly two decades on from his retirement, the problem of Load Management and players sitting out on games.
‘20 years from now, you will never see someone play sick or get out on the floor with a sore ankle’.
Clearly, Jordan was one of the old hands and like Kobe Bryant, played in a time when our studies of sports science into rest and recuperation were still developing. Even with an improved knowledge, could you argue that we’ve become a bit soft?
When Jordan was giving an example of a player who represented this spirit for fighting on despite injury, he cited Isiah Thomas.
When discussing the Load Management issue back in 2003, he used Thomas an example of someone who played on.
Thomas would still take part in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals and scoring 43 points, all while suffering from a sprained ankle.
However, in the past decade players sitting out for games, even if they are healthy, has increased.
It’s nothing new, but public conversations about it have grown exponentially in the past few weeks. It also a particular prevalance in the NBA compared to sports like Baseball or American Football.
Simply put, it’s when a team will rest healthy players in order keep them in good condition for the run of 82 games across a season and the playoffs, if they make them.
The debate about it is considered rare, rare because in most cases, there are ‘valid’ points for saving a pair of legs or preserving older and more experienced players for a crucial game.
That’s like making a tactical decision to throw away a game in order to field the best for a more important one.
The four older players that the San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent home ahead of their 2012 road game, effectively signed off their regular season clash against Miami Heat as a calculated loss.
The NBA didn’t see it like that. The then NBA commissioner David Stern, fined the Spurs $250,000 for it. The ruling said that it was, ‘resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.’
So, a matter of perspective. Popovich’s tactical long-game but the NBA’s disdain at a boring game. Do the fines dissuade? Probably not.
Good for the team?
Tactics aside, resting players may have its merits for helping preserve players and avoid too many back-to-back performances and thus fewer injuries. (Although League data does not generally support this.)
There’s another possible drawback. Some teams have used Load Management to build their lineups and it doesn’t really work.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been load-managing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George since they signed them in 2019. The consequence has been that the Clippers have not gotten anywhere near 50 regular season game wins since 2017 and their last Finals appearance was 2021.
At the time of writing, Clippers are 61 games into the Regular season with a Win Percentage of 0.541. That’s 33 wins to 28 losses.
Who is actually suffering?
The fans. One of the NBA’s younger players has come out against players who choose to sit out even if they’ve got a sniffle or an injury that’s not going to affect their game.
He wants everyone to play even if they are 80% health capacity. Why? While the players themselves are not exactly struggling for money, it’s the ticket purchasing fans who are paying see them compete. They are the ones suffering.
‘Just play man. If you 70 – 80%, You gotta play. I don’t like all the sitting and missing games… These people might have enough money.’
The fans are not afraid to show it either. Recently, a viral video showed a Miami Heat fan with a poster that read that he’d travelled 4,000 miles to see Jimmy Butler play. While it blurs the lines on Load Management (it was not in this case), Butler was ruled out with an injury.
Another example would be the time when Nikola Jokic sat out of a game against the Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo, thus denying fans the chance to see two amazing MVP players face off on the court.
Let’s face some realities though.
What is the game today?
Trying our best to avoid cliches, Basketball is nothing like what it used to be. Today, it’s fast-paced, tiring, mostly made up of devastating 3-pointer throws from the half-court and a defence which is having to work harder than the offence.
One viable solution could be to reduce the number of games from 82 to 72.
Stephen Curry has implored the audience to understand that rest is something players don’t really push for. Instead, taking 10 games off the regular season would help.
‘That creates enough rest where we don’t have to have some of these crazy situations. I think you’d see way fewer games missed from players,’ he said.
Putting everything into perspective…
Should we reduce the number of games?
Should coaches rest key players and offset a less important loss against an important game that they need to win?
Will a quarter of a million dollar fine actually stop a team from benching players?
Should there be a new serious of categories from minor cuts and bruises to life threatening injuries that will impede a player’s game?
Let’s conclude with more prophetic words on this topic from MJ.
‘You can hear about how somebody played, or read about the best way to achieve success, but people need to set examples. Until they see, they won’t do. It’s easy to talk about what Jerry West did, but it’s not easy to see what he did.
‘Tomorrow’s kids are going to have to see someone playing hurt, see someone practicing the day after winning a championship. We have to provide examples so they can relate to that ideal. Otherwise, they will get bad habits.
‘If we lose that gap, then it starts to fade away, and 20 years from now, you will never see someone play sick or get out on the floor with a sore ankle.’