Sunday, June 23, 2019

WTF is “Load Management"?

Since the turn of the century, the San Antonio Spurs are the winningest team in the NBA. No doubt, a lot of their success can be attributed to having had a bevy of current and future Hall of Famers on their rosters. But perhaps no single person has been more influential in their success than head coach (and famous curmudgeon) Gregg Popovich.

Under Popovich, the Spurs have run off a stretch of 18 straight 50-win seasons and 22 consecutive playoff appearances. Obviously, Popovich is a brilliant basketball strategist; you don’t win that many games by accident. But his brilliance appears to extend off the court, too -- specifically, to the human body and its need for rest and recovery. (Note: he likely also has the help of a world-class sports medicine team.)

Case in point: in 2012 Popovich famously rested his four best players on the night of a nationally televised game. It was an unfortunate decision for fans around the country who were stuck watching the Spurs’ B-squad. Although the Spurs ended up losing the game, the move proved to be the right one for them in the long-run. They won the championship that season.

This wasn’t the first time Pop rested healthy players, nor would it be the last. In fact, it was a decision Popovich and the Spurs would repeat again and again. Popovich’s goal was simple: to avoid overworking his players during the regular season so that come playoff time, they would be in peak form (not battling nagging injuries). On the nights a player did not play (DNP), “DNP - Rest” would show up beside the player's name in the box score.

As other teams adopted this strategy en masse, the NBA league office finally put stipulations on it to prevent ratings from taking a hit. Teams are now subject to healthy fines for resting healthy players, especially for primetime games.

In the last year or two, teams appear to have developed a workaround -- a workaround based on a fair bit of science, though it still has some pundits crying foul. The workaround shows up in the box score as “DNP - Load Management.”

Despite sounding like a bad porno, “load management” is actually a concept that’s borne out of a good deal of sports science research over the last decade. (I wrote extensively about the research in this article.)

In a nutshell, “load” refers to players' workloads, which are the sum of all of the games and practices they’re taking part it. “Management” refers to dosing those workloads appropriately to maximize fitness and performance while minimizing fatigue and risk of injury.

One instance of load management that garnered attention this NBA season happened right in my hometown. Down the stretch of the season, Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid missed several games due to a combination of left knee soreness (which they called tendinitis) and “load management.”

Like the Spurs, the Sixers’ goal was to have Embiid ready to rock and roll for the playoffs. Unfortunately, to this end the Sixers weren’t able to recreate the Spurs’ success. Despite the end-of-season load management, Embiid wound up missing a bunch of games in the playoffs, too. When he did play, he was hobbled by knee pain, sickness, and what looked like an extra 20 pounds or so of body weight.

So what went wrong? As an outsider, I can only speculate. Despite its very real scientific underpinnings, some felt "load management" was just a coverup for something more severe going on with Embiid’s knee than the team let on. My hunch is that the situation may have been a misapplication of the very load management principle the team was intending to invoke.

One way to manage a player’s workload is to have them do less. For example, they might sit out of a practice or perhaps the second night of back-to-back games. Oftentimes this respite is enough to aid their recovery.

Trouble brews, though, when that one practice or game turns into several. If the player keeps doing less and less, their fitness level plummets, and so does their performance when they do get back on the court. Add an overindulgent diet to that equation and what do you get? 2019 NBA Playoff Edition Joel Embiid.

Imagine the shock to the system when you go from a week of light activity only to suddenly playing 40 minutes of playoff basketball. That's a recipe for sore knees even if you aren't 260 pounds!

Clearly, just doing less is an overly simplistic application of load management. The key seems to be keeping the player’s fitness level high as they rest the things that ail them. No easy feat when you consider the goal of replicating the conditioning demands of an NBA game without actually subjecting the player to it.

Admittedly, I have no idea what exactly Embiid and the Sixers were doing down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs. For all I know, they did everything right and he’s just made of glass. Or maybe they overexerted him throughout the season, and there was no coming back by the time the homestretch hit. Again, poor load management.

For a recent example of expert load management, we need look no further than the team that eliminated the Sixers and went on to win the championship this season, the Toronto Raptors. After missing most of last season due injury, Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard DNP'ed a total of 22 regular season games. Guess how many he missed in the playoffs. (Hint: 0.) Which isn't to say he wasn't battling injury during the playoffs. But it wasn't anything so severe that Leonard couldn't work through it on his way to winning the Finals MVP.

Perhaps the Sixers can look to Popovich for some load management advice. They do have an in: Coach Bret Brown was an assistant to Popovich for a decade before taking over the Sixers gig in 2013. With a poker face like this, though, I doubt Pop will be very forthcoming.