TORONTO – The 2018-19 NBA champion Toronto Raptors were revolutionary in more ways than one.
They were the first team outside of the United States to make The Finals and win an NBA title, which will forever change the landscape of basketball in the country of Canada.
They were the first team to win a championship without a player selected in the NBA draft lottery on its roster, which could and probably should inspire other organizations to put a greater emphasis on – and more resources into – player development.
However, on their way to winning it all, the Raptors also set a new precedent for managing the health and wellness of a marquee player. We’re already seeing the league-wide ripple effect of what’s become known as ‘load management.’
Widely credited with coining the term, Alex McKechnie – Toronto’s director of sports science, recently promoted to VP of player health and performance and signed to a contract extension – oversaw the program designed to ease Kawhi Leonard back from a serious quad injury and maintain his conditioning throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
It wasn’t exactly a novel concept – the idea of sitting a player out for rest. Teams had been doing it for years, most famously the San Antonio Spurs. What the Raptors did was give it a catchy moniker and take it to a level we had never seen before.
Leonard missed 22 games last season, most of them for rest. He sat out at least half of each back-to-back and took 10 days and four straight games off as a precaution in January.
It was an innovative way to manage the workload of a (mostly) healthy superstar in his prime and raised more than a few eyebrows along the way. Fans that paid to see Leonard play on his rest nights didn’t like it. Some players and coaches around the league rolled their eyes at it. But hey, it worked.
Now, people are making the connection between the process and the result – Leonard being healthy enough to put the team on his shoulders at times during the playoffs and carry them to a championship – and, just like that, ‘load management’ has entered the NBA lexicon.
“Last year, we were finding our way through it with a guy who hadn’t played in a year,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That’s kind of where it started, and obviously it ended the way it ended, so the light was shining pretty bright at that particular topic and on that particular player and our team.”
Last Wednesday, the Clippers rested Leonard in Utah – the opening night of a back-to-back – for the first time this season. The Rockets are planning to hold 30-year-old Russell Westbrook out of Monday’s game in Memphis – the second leg of a back-to-back – for rest. Get used to it, if you’re not already.
That’s how fast things shift in this league. Most teams are more open to the idea of load managing their stars, especially the ones that consider themselves contenders. Some are taking more heat for letting their players log significant minutes than they are for giving them nights off.
Have things swung too far in the other direction now? Are we getting carried away with load management? At least one coach thinks so.
Following his team’s 113-92 loss to Sacramento on Sunday, Knicks head coach David Fizdale was asked why he left rookie R.J. Barrett on the floor late in an already decided game. The young Canadian is less than two weeks into his NBA career and there’s already been some concern over his heavy early-season workload. He’s played more minutes than anybody else in the league and ranks fifth averaging 37.1 per contest.
“He’s got the day off tomorrow,” Fizdale told reporters in New York. “We gotta get off this load management crap. Latrell Sprewell averaged 42 minutes for a season. This kid is 19 years old. Drop it already.”
The problem with load management, or at least the way it’s generally interpreted, is that it’s become something of an umbrella term. Really, load management is case-specific. Every team monitors every player’s workload to some degree. What that entails depends on the specific player and the situation they’re in. A rebuilding team is obviously going to manage its 19-year-old rookie differently than a team with championship aspirations might approach the regular season workload of a veteran player with an injury history.
Just because one player stands to benefit from playing only 60 games or being limited to 34 minutes a night doesn’t mean that approach works for every player or every team.
“[Load management is] something that's been going on for a long time, and you take a guy like Kawhi, who's such a high-profile athlete, and you throw that catchphrase out there, people run with it,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “So I think once you understand what it really is and what it means, then there's no issue there. But if you're just thinking that it's load management every time a guy rests or every time a guy misses a game, I think it's a little misinformed and I think you should really just do your research on what it actually means.”
“It's different for each individual case. If there's a guy coming off injury or trying to prevent an injury or whatever the case may be, by all means, he should be doing that. But other than that, managing minutes has been going on in this league since the beginning of time. Some guys are individual, case-by-case. Some guys like Latrell Sprewell can play 41 minutes a night and some guys can't. So it's case-by-case, team-by-team. I don't think it's something that we can just throw a net across the entire league and put everybody in the same pool and say it's load management.”
After their part in popularizing the term load management last year, the Raptors are among the teams that have faced some criticism over the early-season usage of a couple of their players.
Nurse has been using a tight rotation primarily made up of his seven returning players, and without a third point guard on the roster he’s leaned heavily on Kyle Lowry and VanVleet.
Lowry leads the NBA logging 38.9 minutes per game, nearly five more than he averaged last year. He’s exceeded 38 minutes in four of six contests, something that he did in just 11 of his 65 games last season. VanVleet is just behind him, ranking second in minutes per game at 37.8 – 10 more than he played last year. He’s logged at least 40 minutes in three of six games so far after doing so just once last season.
It’s fair to wonder how sustainable that is, especially with the schedule getting busier and more difficult later in the week. Although VanVleet is just 25, he takes a nightly beating on the court on account of his size and style of play. Lowry is turning 34 in March and has a history of wearing down late in the season whenever he’s played this many minutes early on.
Still, there’s more to load management than simply monitoring how many minutes a player is logging. That’s the easiest and one of the only available points of reference for most people outside of these organizations to use, but teams are working with far more data and insight in regards to a player’s physical and mental state.
Like many other teams around the league, the Raptors have cut back on contact practices throughout the season, especially for the vets that carry substantial workloads on game nights, opting to watch more film instead. They make a conscious effort to schedule their travel so that it maximizes rest time. They’ve also educated their players on and emphasized the importance of getting proper sleep
Provided players are eating right and taking care of their bodies and their minds, the amount of games or the number of minutes they play should be less of a concern.
“That's the important part,” VanVleet said. “Playing a game, it's just what I do for a living. I'm ready to go as long in the game as I have to. If I come in here the next day and run up and down, run sprints for two hours, I probably will be tired pretty fast. But you get treatment, you rest, you cold tub, you ice, you massage, you stretch, you yoga, Pilates, lift weights, whatever it is for that person. For me, it's a combination of many different things to get back as close as you can for the next game, then you try to get back to your ceiling and go out there and lace it back up again.”
VanVleet, like Lowry and most players in the NBA, isn’t likely to complain about playing too much or clamour for load management.
“I don't really want to talk about the minutes because people read the news, coaches included, and I'm happy, and if I can play 48 I'll play 48,” VanVleet joked. “So I'm feeling good. I'm not ignorant to the fact that it probably has an effect but it's my job to be ready to go every night and I feel like I've been doing that.”