By: Aaron Ho
Heading into the 2023-2024 NBA season, the NBA has made numerous attempts to deter load management, pushing for players to hit the court more frequently. But what exactly is load management, and does it deliver on its promise to keep players fresh and elevate their performance in the playoffs?
Load management is the “general practice of resting players to prevent future injury.” It is the idea of lightening the load on players during the grueling 82-game regular season so they will have less wear on their bodies and thus are better equipped in the playoffs to perform. The most common types of load management include sitting out in back-to-back games and imposing a minute restriction on players. While load management has been done for about a decade, it was most popularized by Kawhi Leonard in the 2018-2019 season, when he sat out 22 games to help him recover from a right quadricep injury. Despite the scrutiny he received for purposely sitting out in these games, many believe the rest he had gotten during the regular season is a factor in his historic playoff run that led to a championship that same season.
In an attempt to curb load management, the NBA has introduced various measures such as penalizing teams for sitting out multiple star players in a single game. They have also mandated teams to document injuries players suffer yet still give themselves the power to investigate and challenge these medical reports. However, the most important policy implemented by the NBA was a 65-game minimum to receive any major NBA awards. We have yet to see the effects of this change, but it could lead to multiple star players being robbed of the accolades they deserve. With all these policies in place, is the league trying to incentivize players to play more for their benefit or do they have financial motivations?
To unravel the mystery of load management, we used the league’s definition of a star player, which they define as “any player that has made an All-Star or All-NBA team in the previous three seasons.” By this criteria, we initially have 49 players to choose from but many of these players have yet to play in the playoffs, such as LaMelo Ball and Zion Williamson. Furthermore, we wanted to focus more on players that have had multiple playoff appearances in the past three years to optimize consistency, which eliminated multiple options such as DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, and De’Aaron Fox to name a few. Using these two factors, our pool of players to analyze slimmed down from 49 to 30.
Next, in an attempt to quantify these players’s regular season and playoff performances, we tallied their box score averages over the past three years and compared the two. We then compared these values to the total minutes played between the three NBA seasons from 2020-2023. The idea behind this was that if players with high total minutes played during the regular season have a drop off in their averages, then perhaps they should play less intensely during the regular season (load manage).
However, in our case, we were not able to find any significant correlation between the number of regular season minutes played and the difference between a player’s regular season and playoff averages. We ended with a correlation coefficient of -0.1415, which indicates the linear relationship between total minutes played and difference between regular season and playoff averages was not very strong.
To further elaborate on this idea, we decided to run the same data analysis on star players in the league 10 years ago, during the 2010-2013 NBA seasons. After excluding ineligible players by using the same criteria as before, we were left with 32 players that we could work with that included Kobe Bryant, Luol Deng, Tony Parker, and Roy Hibbert to name a few. Star players during this decade played significantly more minutes during this 3-season stretch, averaging 6925.56 average minutes as opposed to the players during the 2020-2023 NBA seasons who averaged 6058.47 minutes. Regardless, there was a lack of significant correlation during this stretch as well, with a correlation coefficient of 0.0644.
Ultimately, our analysis of NBA load management and its impact on player performance for the 2023-2024 season reveals a nuanced landscape. Despite the league's efforts to discourage load management, our study focusing on star players over the past three seasons found no significant correlation between regular season minutes played and the difference between regular season and playoff averages. This challenges the assumption that reducing regular season minutes leads to improved playoff performance. Extending our analysis to star players a decade ago showed a similar lack of substantial correlation, suggesting that this relationship persists over time. The introduction of policies penalizing teams for resting star players and setting a 65-game minimum for major NBA awards raises questions about the league's motivations, highlighting the ongoing need for a nuanced understanding of the delicate balance between player well-being and the demands of a competitive season.