From the Basement | NBA load management hurts fan experience

Jeremy Rosen, Sports Editor

Nathan Rich

The late November matchup between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Golden State Warriors was supposed to be among the most exciting games of the NBA season. Steph Curry led the reigning NBA champions against Zion Williamson and the up-and-coming Pelicans — the game was to be a thrilling event. Fans were ready to flock to the Smoothie King Center to see one of the faces of the league come to town.

Just a few hours before the game, the mood went sour. The pregame injury report announced that Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would all sit out this highly-anticipated matchup. All three were sitting out due to a combination of soreness and management of previous injuries. The other two Warriors starters, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney, were both questionable to play with similar soreness concerns.

By the time the game began, Wiggins was also ruled out for the game, leaving the Warriors without their four best players. The game was over before it even began, as the full strength Pelicans clearly outmatched the Warriors’ skeleton crew. The Pelicans wiped the floor with them 128-83, the largest margin of victory by a team this season.

So why did the Warriors rest all of their starters? Because they were on the second night of playing back-to-back games, and the team wanted to limit the physical stress on their veteran stars. With the Warriors’ Big Three all on the wrong side of 30 and a lengthy injury history, they attempted to conserve their bodies for the postseason.

After the loss, Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr talked about his team’s focus on the postseason. “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Kerr said. “And our players work really, really hard to stay ready and to hopefully play through June.” 

Load management — deliberately sitting healthy players — has become a growing trend among teams with veteran stars. With the wear-and-tear of an 82 game season plus the playoffs, teams have strategically rested their best players throughout the season to avoid risking injuries. Holding out all of the best players at the same time, like the Warriors did in New Orleans, essentially guarantees a loss, but could give them better odds to stay healthy when it really counts. 

The fans are the obvious losers in the new load management trend. The NBA is the most star-driven league among the major American sports, and fans show up to see the biggest stars in action. Curry is the biggest and most popular player in the league, especially among the youngest generation of basketball fans. A lot of families came out just to see Curry in action, only to see him in street clothes on the bench. All of the Warriors’ key players sat out their earlier game against the Pelicans as well, depriving local fans from seeing Curry live this season.

The recent Boston Celtics-Miami Heat game reignited the load management debate among NBA fans. The Heat ruled out star player Jimmy Butler with “lower back tightness” just one hour before tipoff. This was a major shock to the fans, as he did not even appear on the injury report before the game. A viral clip showed a young Heat fan with a sign saying he flew 4405 miles to see Butler play, then getting upset when he learned that Butler was not playing.

Load management appears to be a symptom of a larger problem: the NBA’s long regular season. Teams have opted to coast through the regular season, and then shift into high gear when the playoffs begin. The apathy towards going all out in the regular season and stars sitting out large chunks of games has led to a growing push to shorten the regular season. The 82 game season has been in place since the 1967-68 season, and questions about upholding the tradition has made the league hesitant to shorten the season.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated that the league is considering their options to address load management. “The fact that teams are focused on load management and players are resting, that sends a message in its own right,” Silver said. “And I’m saying we’re paying attention to that and want to make sure that the number of games we’re playing isn’t just a result of the fact that that’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years.”

The league will need to come to a compromise, one that keeps the players as healthy as possible throughout the season, while also giving the fans the show they deserve.

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