Swanson: Hate it or not, load management stinks for NBA fans

Pat Summitt had this boss quote I’ve always loved: “Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”

It’s so clean a sentiment, so straightforward: You get out what you put in. Championship advice, from a coach whose Tennessee women’s basketball team won eight national titles.

But these days there’s another quote that’s rattling around in my head too: “Work smarter, not harder.”

There’s a whole cottage industry that’s sprouted up around it, prioritization in the spirit of productivity. Work smarter, study smarter, parent smarter … hoop smarter?

The NBA has bought in, which is why load management – or “rest,” or sometimes “injury management,” or whatever it is when uninjured players are inactive – has become such a ubiquitous part of the league’s ethos.

Pssst! It’s the devil on my right shoulder, interrupting. Working smarter really just means working less. 

Hey, wait a minute! retorts the angel on my left. That’s not fair! This isn’t about slacking off. ‘Smarter’ means strategizing according to the scientific data, taking people’s health into account! 

OK, sure, the guy with the pitchfork says. But what happened to pushing through, building endurance, having pride in your work?

You old codger, snarls the haloed one. You antiquated, backward-thinking dinosaur!

And their debate goes ’round, both of them scoring points until I can’t tell who’s actually the good guy or bad guy, let alone who’s winning.

But I know who’s losing: You, the fan.

While the NBA goes about its business of trying to predict and limit injury risk, your risk is rising: It’s more likely now that you’ll purchase a ticket to see one of the load-bearing stars around which the league has been built up only to wind up watching his understudy.

And those particularly delectable NBA matchups that make for appointment TV? For you, the viewer, maybe. There’s no guarantee the principal actor will RSVP yes, not if erring on the side of caution might help gain an advantage later, in the postseason, and long term, when it comes to extending the guy’s lucrative career.

According to spotrac.com, entering Thursday, 36 players had missed a total of 96 games on account of injury management – that’s 21 more players than all of last season, and four more games already. And last season, 50 players missed a total of 99 games, officially, to “rest.”

And what if you’re really invested in a team? A bobblehead-collecting, jersey-rocking, superstition-abiding fanatic who’s pulling for your squad with every fiber in your body? You might find yourself questioning your life choices when, in these stretch-run games that mean so much to you, your favorite players don’t suit up.

Like Wednesday, when Anthony Davis was held out of the Lakers’ game in Oklahoma City, a contest with potential playoff implications. The big man’s absence was either planned in advance or a surprising, concerning scratch, depending on whether you wanted to reference quotes Coach Darvin Ham gave last week or this one.

So you can think, like many fans I know, that load management makes sense.

Or you can believe, like many former pro athletes do, that it’s a load of manure.

What it is, too often, is confusing.

It’s almost impossible to tell who’s hurting and who’s resting, or even where in the house the call is coming from.

Kendrick Perkins, a former player, went on ESPN recently and put it on the players: “Guys today, when it comes down to their mental toughness, are softer than funeral home music.”

Or is it the team’s orders? A doctor’s? Nate Jones, an NBA agent and marketer, took to Twitter recently and said Perkins should leave the players out of it: “Players have nothing to do with this. New-age quant-based medical staffs and advisors now control the NBA.”

Others who have worked with teams will tell you players and teams and medical personnel, generally, they’re in cahoots.

That they’re leaning into the science together, trying to take care of athletes who already logged millions of miles as kids touring the AAU circuit, who are covering more of the court than their forebears, and, yes, who fly private and have nutritionists, personal trainers and every other cutting-edge biomechanical tool you and I haven’t even heard of yet.

Kawhi Leonard isn’t done yet, but already his legacy is profound: Two-time NBA champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP and poster child for the load management movement.

No one who follows basketball will forget that, coming off a relationship-rupturing quadriceps injury in San Antonio, he played only 60 games and skipped at least half of each of Toronto’s back-to-back sets in his one season as a Raptor.

The payoff: Their first NBA championship. “My health is No. 1 and that’s gonna make us a better team,” Leonard said in 2019, shortly after signing with the Clippers.

They’ve been as careful with their leading man as Toronto was. But it hasn’t yet resulted in a title, and it didn’t save Leonard from suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the 2021 playoffs, an incredibly ill-timed blow that kept him off the floor for all of last season too.

Load management isn’t a panacea, but it is a matter of keeping up. Staying competitive, inversely, by competing less often.

The load management math test would read something like: If one star’s wheels have 10 fewer games on them entering a playoff series against a team whose star played in all 82, how great is the advantage?

That’s why, though there are good arguments for shortening the season by 10 games – it could eliminate all of the taxing back-to-back sets and make regular-season games more meaningful – I’m not convinced 72 wouldn’t just become the new 82.

Fewer games also would come with a cost – to you, of course. The fan, the consumer, the poor schmuck who’d have to pay more for tickets to cover the lost dates.

Maybe, eventually, you’ll just be used to watching NBA games knowing you’ll see some amazing shot-making, little defense and, when you see a shooting star, feeling inclined to make a wish, because it’ll be rare enough that you feel lucky.

Or will you find yourself managing your time differently? Looking for entertainment elsewhere? Might you make the business decision to invest your money, your heart, in other arenas?

Maybe, then, the NBA will just have to work extra hard to win you back?