Last season, LeBron James made headlines after sitting out a game against the Golden State Warriors. The reason for James’ absence was officially listed as “load management,” the first official acknowledgement of a practice that has become increasingly popular: resting star players when healthy during the regular season in order to improve their postseason availability. While James’ load management certainly wasn’t the first time the practice has been used, it garnered national attention because of James’ notability as a player.
Since James’ benching, load management has become increasingly common with several stars, most notably Kawhi Leonard. With Leonard leading the Raptors to a title and peaking in the playoffs last year, his success was seemingly a vindication of the practice and the benefits it had on the league’s most talented players.
Even with last season’s success, Leonard’s continued load management this season has received consistent questioning. The Clippers, Leonard’s new team which can be considered one of the most talented teams in the league, are currently sitting three and a half games back of the top spot in the West. Despite fielding such a talented roster, the team’s stars in Leonard and Paul George have missed several games for load management, bringing into question the efficacy of the strategy as the Clippers remain second-best in the division rankings.
On the other hand, the Lakers have consistently played Anthony Davis and James and have a comfortable lead in the first spot in a competitive Western Conference as a result. The Clippers are taking a bet that having their stars rested and healthy in the playoffs is more important than having home court advantage. The strategy uses Leonard’s play last season as justification for that rationale, recognizing that Leonard was able to lead a less-talented Raptors team to their first-ever NBA championship. The Raptors, however, had home court advantage in three of their four playoff series last season, while the Clippers are on pace to only have one series with home court advantage this season and will likely have a markedly tougher first round opponent than the Lakers.
Another example of a team embracing load management with questionable results is the Houston Rockets. Despite having two of the last three MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets are currently the fifth place team in the West. Westbrook has been sitting out several games during back-to-back stretches, and the Rockets have notably struggled in games without their superstar point guard. As the Rockets continue to tally losses in Westbrook’s absence, they risk losing home court advantage for a playoff series or two. If the season ended now, they would not have home court advantage in the first round against a strong Utah Jazz team. While load management prioritizes slightly more rested players over pushing for the best record possible, the strategy clearly disregards the advantage of playing at one’s own stadium. In decisive game sevens in all four rounds of the playoffs, the home team wins around 62% of the time.
In addition to sacrificing playoff seeding, players have voiced frustration at the preferential treatment stars like Leonard have received from coaches and other members of the basketball community, with load management being an example. An article published in The Athletic reported that role players on the Clippers did not appreciate Leonard’s ability to sit out games when he saw fit and to cancel team practices on a whim. Load management is almost exclusively done by star players, so it is understandable that it could create resentment by the rest of the team, especially by players who strive for the best possible record and playoff seeding. Benching star players creates more work for the team’s supporting cast, causing these players spend more minutes on the court in more difficult games.
Ultimately, whether or not load management maintains its rising popularity is still to be determined, depending on how teams like the Clippers and Rockets compete this season. It is definitely a bad look, however, for the league to have star players consistently sitting out regular season games. Worse yet, load management breeds frustration among fans who buy tickets in advance to see the stars play. These concerns have prompted pushback for the league to intervene, with proposals such as banning load management and even shortening the regular season in order to spread out the games.
At the end of the day, load management continues to stir up controversy and detracts from the true nature of basketball as a competitive sport. The league must look to rectify its players’ needs for rest and recovery with its fans’ desires to watch today’s greatest talents on the court. This solution certainly doesn’t lie in load management as the strategy diminishes competitiveness among teams and robs fans the enjoyment of watching their team’s greatest stars perform on the big stage.