When Kristaps Porzingis sits out a game for “load management,” it makes sense. The guy is coming off a torn ACL, and there is only so much wear and tear that a knee can take.
But when Kawhi Leonard repeatedly sits out one-half of a back-to-back, strange things happen: teams get fined, coaches go silent and the NBA talks out of both sides of its mouth.
National TV audiences were deprived of seeing Leonard in marquee matchups last week as the Los Angeles Clippers chose to rest him, something the Raptors did last season, too, as they were on their way to an NBA Championship.
Dave Fizdale, coach of the New York Knicks (for the time being), came out pretty strongly earlier this month, saying people have to “get off this load management crap,” in explaining why he is going to play R.J. Barrett during heavy minutes in his rookie season.
The point of contention is also becoming a headache for sportsbooks trying to set daily NBA odds.
How books are balancing the load
As noted elsewhere, Wilt Chamberlain would have laughed at the concept of load management. He averaged more than 48 minutes per game one season, sitting out a total of only eight minutes because he was thrown out of a game.
But back then, players played back-to-back-to-backs and traveled commercial instead of charter, and a typical NBA team staff might number a dozen people instead of hundreds, as is the case today.
With the Lakers playing a back-to-back set this week (against the Suns and Warriors), there was talk that LeBron James might sit out one of the two to rest his 34-year-old body.
But since he had triple-doubles in four of his last five games, nobody wanted to see that.
“Mostly, it involves Kawhi Leonard’s games,” said Jeff Sherman of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook about player rest. “You pretty much expect it when he has back-to-backs. It affects us more on how we do props.
“We do expect, at some point, (that) LeBron will sit out one end of a back-to-back. As much as his pride has been speaking, that may end up being a management decision,” Sherman said.
Some players take pride in playing all 82 games. Others, who have more of a diva mentality, will sit out when the whimsy strikes them.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to the coach.
“When the Spurs were sitting (Tim) Duncan, (Tony) Parker and (Manu) Ginobili, we didn’t know about it until two hours before game time. And if we don’t have that information before the bettors do, we get crushed,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations for DraftKings Sportsbook.
“With Kawhi, Doc Rivers has said he won’t play back-to-backs. Now, maybe it’s the first game, maybe it’s the second and, as oddsmakers, we have to try to stay ahead of that a little bit and have some insight into where that might go. A line can swing 6-7 points if he is not in there,” said Avello.
He noted that he has load management issues of his own, trying to come up with lines for more than 100 college basketball games each night.
Does load management even work?
“Some coaches believe in it; others do not,” said Jay Triano, an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets and former head coach of the Toronto Raptors.
“Sports science has become very prevalent, so some of them must know what they are talking about. But when I’ve been a head coach, I’ve never practiced it.”
We learned Monday night that Leonard is capable of nearly quadruple-doubling (he had nine turnovers) against his former team as the Clippers defeated the Raptors 98-88 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Leonard had sat out two of the Clippers’ first seven games, yet the load management in his case may be working.
He is sixth in the NBA in scoring at 26.9 PPG — the highest average of his career — although his 3-point shooting percentage is down significantly from last season. His rebounds, however, are at a career-best 8.5 per game.
So, the bottom line is that load management works, in some cases, and does not in others.
“How can you have played only seven games, you are dealing with fans who are paying top dollar for tickets, and then you say you’re not playing?” Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood argued in an interview with TheLines. “It’s bad for business.”
However, if the Golden State Warriors had exercised some load management last season in the NBA Finals with Kevin Durant, he would probably not be sitting out the season for Brooklyn.
Same with DeMarcus Cousins, who should have exercised some load management last summer rather than blowing out his Achilles tendon again in a pickup game.
The impact on gamblers
The difficulty for the bettors is knowing information at the right time to capitalize financially.
It requires proficiency at using TweetDeck, following NBA beat writers, and getting a bet in before the books adjust a number.
The NBA changed its rules this season to mandate that starting lineups are announced 30 minutes before tipoff, which is a concession to the wagering crowd the league is trying to harness.
The league did this because the sports betting that happened in the shadows a generation ago is now it is becoming legal on a state-by-state basis. The onus is now on the gambler; keeping up with who is playing and who is sitting on a nightly basis is no longer a guessing game. You just have to stay on your toes to keep on top of it.