Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

190117-haberstroh-boogie-app.jpg
NBC Sports

Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

DeMarcus Cousins is an enormous human being. 

He is listed at 270 pounds, making him one of the 10 heaviest players in a league of mountainous men. According to a recent CDC study, the average American male in his twenties checks in at 5-foot-9, 187 pounds -- a 6-foot-2 male is considered to be in the 95th percentile. Cousins is 6-foot-11, and nearly 100 pounds above the norm.

As Cousins returns from a ruptured Achilles on Friday night against the Clippers, the NBA world will be watching closely. How will he look? Will the Warriors play through him? How many minutes will he play? Will he be a liability? Will he be All-NBA again?

Those questions won’t be limited to just basketball people. The medical community will surely be keeping an eye on Cousins’ return simply because he is such a rare case study.

Even in the NBA, where the average height is 6-foot-7 and the average weight is 218 pounds, there aren’t many examples of players as large as Cousins returning to play at a high level. And if they are that large, they aren’t All-NBA players. And even if they were All-NBA players, they aren’t returning to a team looking to win a third straight championship.

What’s at stake isn’t just the Warriors’ chances at a three-peat. Cousins is a free agent this summer. The key to maximizing both may be one simple variable: Cousins’ weight. 

Cousins’ weight and conditioning have been a talking point throughout his basketball career. At Kentucky, he was listed at 292 pounds by DraftExpress. He ballooned to 308 pounds by the end of the 2015-16 season, per Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, before trimming down to 275 ahead of Team USA camp in the summer of 2016. 

“He’s gotten in unbelievable shape for this,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Cousins that summer.

His weight again swelled during the 2016-17 season around the time of the blockbuster trade from Sacramento to New Orleans. That following summer, he wanted to shed some pounds, so he hired a new personal chef and dedicated himself to yoga.

“I kind of let myself go in the second half of the season last year,” Cousins told NOLA.com in August 2017. “I got in a place where I didn’t really want to be.”

Cousins lost a bunch of weight to prepare for the 2017-18 Pelicans’ up-tempo pace, though he didn’t specify how many pounds he lost, telling ESPN: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I lost a lot of weight.”

The funny thing is, despite the obvious body transformations, Cousins’ weight never wavered in his team’s official media guides over the years. His weight was listed at exactly 270 pounds for every season -- in Sacramento, in New Orleans and now, in Golden State. Hardly anyone around the league believes that to be an accurate figure. Just like his teammate Kevin Durant’s height of 6-foot-9.

But Cousins’ weight will be critical during his return from the Achilles injury. According to proprietary research done by the Sports Medicine Analytics Research Team (SMART) and obtained by NBCSports.com, one factor stood out in NBA players’ ability to return to pre-Achilles-tear levels: Weight loss.

The study looked at 40 Achilles tears in the NBA and tracked each player’s performance after surgery. Some went well. More did not. But of the list of positive outcomes, all but one case was associated with weight loss.

It’s not clear how much weight Cousins lost during his Achilles rehab, if any. While there were a slew of articles detailing his weight loss during the 2017 offseason, that hasn’t been a focal point this time around. The Warriors’ media guide lists him at 270 pounds, the same as it was in Sacramento.

The post-Achilles study found that no players above 285 pounds were able to return to greater than 70 percent of their PER or scoring average after injury. No players above 285 pounds were able to play more than 66 percent of their games or have performance levels within 50 percent of their prior level.

Dr. Richard Ferkel of the Southern California Orthopedic Institute estimates that he’s operated on over a dozen Achilles tears of NBA players in his medical career. Cousins was one of them last January. He agrees that Cousins’ sheer weight makes for a trickier recovery, but he’s been very pleased by the collective effort by Cousins and the Warriors staff. Keeping his weight down has been a top priority.

“It certainly is a factor,” Dr. Ferkel told NBCSports.com. “The stress they’re putting on is a little different than for somebody who is a six-foot point guard. It probably extends the rehab a bit longer in bigger people than in smaller people.”

There’s a litany of cautionary tales for centers dealing with this injury, but former McDonald’s All-American center Stanley Roberts, Shaquille O’Neal’s 7-foot teammate at LSU and former first-round pick, is one of the more infamous examples. In December 1993, Roberts ruptured his right Achilles. Ten months after his surgery, Roberts showed up to Clippers training camp well over 300 pounds. Said then-Clippers GM Elgin Baylor: “He weighs too much, that’s what he weighs. You can quote that.” Three weeks later, Roberts ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He admirably fought his way back to play part of five seasons, but he played his last NBA game before turning 30 years old. 
 
The injury also ended the career of the 300-pound Jerome James, who famously signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Knicks in 2005 and dealt with weight and health issues throughout his New York tenure before tearing his Achilles in 2008. In 2011, DeSagana Diop, listed at 300 pounds, tore his Achilles at the age of 28 and played just 49 games thereafter. None of these giants were near All-NBA players at the time of injury, but they shared Cousins’ colossal size.
 
Why is weight loss such a strong predictor? It has to do with one devastating side effect of a torn Achilles: Calf atrophy. Because of the post-surgery immobilization, the calf muscle shrinks from the lack of exertion. Simply put, the smaller muscle often times can’t support the same weight as it did before the surgery. That imbalance is super tricky to manage. Studies have shown that even after seven years post-surgery, the calf muscle on the injured side of Achilles tears showed decreased strength compared to the non-injured side.
 
After a recent full-contact practice at Santa Cruz, Cousins was asked whether he was nervous about his Achilles holding up.
 
"No nervousness at all," Cousins told ESPN.  "I'm more worried about pulling a hammy or something like that. It's been a while since I've played and reacted. The Achilles is the least of my worries."

Cousins’ nerves about other things being thrown off is a worthy concern. It’s exactly what happened to a star big man who suffered an Achilles tear about a decade ago.

* * *

Elton Brand is often cited as the closest Cousins comp. You’ve probably heard that Brand’s Achilles tear in 2007 derailed his career. Actually, you might have heard that directly from him, in a podcast interview with ESPN’s Marc Spears and Amin Elhassan. 

“The most frustrating part was the injuries,” Brand said. “That Achilles really changed the trajectory of my career.”

At the time of his injury, the two-time All-Star was 28 years old and listed at 254 pounds, down from his 275-pound rookie weight. In Brand’s post-surgery April debut, he scored 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench, returning in about eight months, three months sooner than Cousins’ timetable. Brand averaged 17.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in the final eight games of the season, down from his pre-injury levels of 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. But, surprisingly, after adjusting for playing time, Brand’s per-minute averages in 2007-08 were nearly identical to his pre-surgery norm. After signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brand averaged an impressive 17.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in 18 games to kick off his tenure. 

But in early December with the Sixers, Brand suffered a right hamstring injury against the Lakers, and two weeks later, he dislocated his right shoulder, which required season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum. Then, after all those injuries, he was never the same again. 

“That whole kinetic chain: Once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back,” Brand told ESPN. “No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy.”

It’s impossible to know how Brand would fare if he hadn’t busted his hamstring and then wrecked his shoulder. But those are certainly contributing factors to his post-surgery drop off and something to keep in mind while fortune-telling Cousins’ next few months. 

Brand is just one example of a big man who struggled to regain his pre-surgery form. But it’s instructive to look at some possible potholes to avoid with Cousins. In Brand’s first full season after his Achilles tear, he played in both parts of a back-to-back in the second game and third game of the season. In the second night, after flying overnight from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Brand played 45 minutes. Yeah, it was a different league back then.

Sitting out the second half of a back-to-back was once considered taboo but not anymore. Team sources indicate that they haven’t discussed whether Cousins will play in back-to-backs this season, choosing to play it by ear. But it could be wise to sit him in those games. When Brand suffered his pulled hamstring on Dec. 3 against the Lakers, it was his third game in four nights. He played 41 minutes in the first game and 43 minutes in the second. In the third game, also the second night of a back-to-back, Brand came up limp halfway through the third quarter. He pulled his right hamstring, the opposite leg of his Achilles tear.

As good as Brand was, the Duke product was never quite the caliber of Cousins, who already has twice the number of All-Star appearances as Brand. Add the backdrop of a championship quest and this is uncharted territory. 

Cousins is returning to a new team and a new, high-octane league. He will be suiting up for a Warriors team that is averaging 101.7 possessions per game, the 10th-highest pace factor in the league. That’s actually a tad faster than the Pelicans’ pace -- 100.6 possessions per game -- at the time of Cousins’ injury in late January. 

Can Cousins play at that kind of pace? It’s a question that will be on Dr. Ferkel’s mind when he watches Cousins in person on Friday in Los Angeles.

“No. 1, how does he feel and look on the court?” Ferkel says. “How comfortable is he? How comfortable is he to keep up with the pace of the game?”

The Warriors have slowed down lately, perhaps in anticipation of bringing in Cousins. In the month of December, the team ranked second in fastest offensive possessions, pushing the ball at every opportunity, per Inpredictable.com tracking data. But in January, they’ve tapped the brakes down to eighth-fastest, most notably after turnovers, where the offense ranks below-average in speed. The Pelicans were demonstrably faster when Cousins hit the bench last season. The Warriors figure to follow suit.

In some ways, Cousins’ return couldn’t happen at a better time. The Warriors have a preposterous 130.1 offensive rating this month, and that’s before they add a guy who averaged 25.2 points last season before going down with his Achilles injury. 

But Dr. Ferkel emphasized that what we’ll see on Friday isn’t the final product. In some ways, it’s the beginning.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that even if he’s released, we, as part of DeMarcus’ team, feel this current release [to play] is really the final phase of his rehabilitation. We’re not saying he’s 100 percent like he would be if he was uninjured. He’s done everything he can do but be in a game situation with elite players.”

After Cousins passed his conditioning tests, the final barrier to play, he was cleared to play for the champs. The wait is over. But for his long-term health, the weight watch has just begun.

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

190821-anthony-davis-lebron-james-haberstroh.jpg
USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

190814-load-management-haberstroh.jpg
USA Today Sports

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

The 1,230-game NBA schedule has arrived. While fans start to plan out which games to attend and which marquee matchups to watch, teams will be doing some planning of their own: 

When to sit their stars during the 82-game grind.

Like it or not, this is the NBA we live in. After years of employing strategic rest programs, coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs used to be the face of the “DNP-Rest.” But Kawhi Leonard’s season -- winning the Larry O’Brien trophy on the heels of an aggressive resting program in Toronto -- could represent a watershed moment for the league. 

In 2018-19, Leonard did not play a single full back-to-back set in the regular season and wrapped up a postseason so dominant that many now consider him to be the top player in the NBA. To him, there should be no debate: All that load management helped him stay healthy and peak at the right time.

Whether the rest of the league copies the Kawhi plan is a mystery. Some of the game’s brightest stars, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, took games off to rest last season, although not to Leonard levels. Nonetheless, the DNP-Rest scourge has grown to such an extent that embracing load management has found its way into free agency pitches.

“It’s not enough to prove you can win,” said one GM. “Now you have to prove you can prolong their career.”

As the DNP-rest strategy rises to unseen levels, the NBA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines. Back-to-backs are at an all-time low. In April, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of taking a small chunk out of the regular season in order to fit in a midseason tournament. In June, ESPN reported that NBA and team executives have been exploring such a cup-style tournament as soon as the 2020-21 season.

But as we get ready for marquee matchups in an open championship race, some of those high-profile games may fall victim to load management. Which stars and which games are most at risk? 

* * * 

Vijay Shravah knew there had to be a better way. As a NASA engineer in Silicon Valley, Shravah and his buddies used to buy tickets to watch the Golden State Warriors only to find out last minute that Stephen Curry and other stars weren’t playing that night. They weren’t injured. They were healthy scratches. Even on national TV games.

“The more it happened, the more it baffled me that there was no recourse,” Shravah told NBC Sports.

Shravah felt like it was a breach of trust. No other pro team sport depends on its star power like the NBA, and suddenly, it seemed healthy stars weren’t as dependable as he thought. As the DNP-Rest took hold among the best players, the problem only got worse for ticket buyers and home viewers. In October 2017, Shravah founded Fansure, an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury. 

It takes some real brainpower to make it work. The company has employed two NASA scientists to create algorithms that predict the likelihood of a star player sitting, accounting for several factors, including a player’s rest history, days off heading into a game and quality of opponent. A fan can purchase a 50 percent reimbursement or 100 percent reimbursement package for a small variable fee separate from their ticket purchase. Should the star player sit, the fan gets its money back -- not unlike when airlines offer ticket protection plans before checkout.

Teams are resting their players, or at least being honest about it, more than ever. One of Fansure’s findings should worry fans and executives alike: Top players are taking off games 3.5 times as often as they did in 2012-13. Top 10 players, on average, rested about seven percent of its games last season (every six games or so) and most often at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs. (The company’s top 10 criteria is based on their internal metrics). That figure is disproportionately represented by Leonard last season, when he sat 22 of 82 games to rest and protect his bothersome knee.


With an open championship race, Shravah expects stars like Embiid, James and Leonard to take games off when it makes sense in order to maximize postseason performance. 

“There’s no reason to believe why the trend won’t continue,” Shravah said. 

Of course, not all players are risks for load management. Fansure has identified 10 players who are most likely to be a healthy scratch. At the top of the list is the 34-year-old James, who played a career-low 55 games last season dealing with a significant groin injury that forced him to sit for precautionary reasons. After crunching the schedule that was released on Monday, Fansure expects James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest.

That might seem like a lot, but James has played over 56,000 minutes in his NBA career (playoffs included), which is more than Stephen Curry and his father Dell Curry combined. With the Lakers vying for a championship and Anthony Davis being able to shoulder the load in his absence, it’s possible James takes a Leonard-like conservative approach in the regular season.

Following James, Leonard, Embiid, Paul George, Curry and Davis were highlighted as likely sitters considering their injury risk, rest history and respective team’s championship contention. Fansure also sees a strong probability that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Damian Lillard will miss several games to recover from the 82-game grind.

Which games are most likely to fall victim to load management? Fansure has uncovered six factors that raise the rest probability for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the league:

  • Last game of the season (14.9 times more likely)
  • Second game of a back-to-back (6.5)
  • Single-game road trip (5.2)
  • First game of a back-to-back (4.8)
  • Three games in four days (4.4)
  • Away games (3.5)


The single-game road trip is a hidden pothole. On March 27 last season, the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Making matters worse for Jazz fans hoping to see Lebron, the single-game road trip was sandwiched inside a four-game homestand. Sure enough, James took the night off and didn’t travel with the team. The same went for Leonard on March 3 when he rested during the team’s one-game road trip to Detroit even though it didn’t come on a back-to-back.

Shravah realized it’s not just ticket buyers who are affected when James abruptly decides to sit out even on a non-back-to-back. TV advertisers and gambling sectors aren’t jumping for joy either. This past year, Shravah hired the eighth member of the Fansure team, Scott Kaplan, who is an economics PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and winner of the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics poster competition for his research on the economic impact of star players on NBA ticket prices.

Using Kaplan’s insight and the team’s engineering intel, Fansure is now assessing quality of matchups and risk of injury/rest to help advertisers and fans pick which games to lay down big money for and which to avoid.

Looking through that lens, there are several high-profile games that project to have the highest chance of being a load management game. 

First is Nov. 7 when Lillard and the Blazers come to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on TNT. The Clippers will have played Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the night before on ESPN. Will Leonard and George play that second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, especially if George is coming back from double shoulder surgery? 

On the Blazers’ side, it’s the front end of a back-to-back before they fly back up to Portland for a home game against Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Will Lillard and CJ McCollum, fresh off the deepest playoff run of their career, give it a go?

Another early DNP-Rest possibility is the first Warriors-Lakers matchup of the season on Nov. 13. The Lakers will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, after playing in Phoenix the night before and flying overnight to Los Angeles. The highly anticipated game will, of course, be nationally televised.

James and Davis may decide to play in that marquee game, but the previous night in Phoenix is a game that may fall victim to DNP-rest. It’s a single-game road trip for the Lakers, with two home games before and four home games after the trek to the desert. If Phoenix fans don’t get to see James that night, then they might not see him all season. The other time they host L.A. is the Lakers’ season finale, a game in which James has sat 11 of his last 12 years.

For those outlining the season, here are 10 games that Fansure has red-flagged for load management risk:

  • Nov. 7: POR at LAC
  • Nov. 12: LAL at PHX
  • Nov. 27: LAC at MEM
  • Jan. 23: LAL at BKN
  • Feb. 11: LAC at PHI
  • March 1: LAL at NOP
  • March 12: BKN at GSW
  • March 14: NOP at LAC
  • March 19: PHI at CHA
  • April 15: LAL at PHX
     

Kevin Durant’s “return” to Golden State is on the list for a more subtle reason. Irving, who took games off ahead of the playoffs last season, is also on the load management radar for that late-season game. The trip to the Chase Center is the first night of a back-to-back, but more importantly, it’s bookended by games in Los Angeles. Will Durant travel during his Achilles rehab or will he stay in Los Angeles? 

For what it’s worth, the NBA chose not to put that game on national TV, underlining the sheer unlikelihood of Durant making an appearance at the Warriors’ new arena in the 2019-20 season.

* * * 

Don’t expect every team to have a hard-line rest schedule until the season starts and signs of fatigue begin to show.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

It remains to be seen how often Leonard will rest this season. At his opening press conference in Los Angeles, Leonard indicated that this season he would take the load management on a “day-by-day” basis and that he intends to play out the season. Part of Toronto’s load management program was a response to Leonard only playing nine games in the previous season with the Spurs. Leonard has hinted that he feels healthier entering this season.

“Resting on back-to-backs is becoming a more and more accepted practice around the league,” said one top executive. “But Kawhi didn’t invent this.”

Still, Leonard’s success last season will influence at least some decisions across the league. Embiid, in particular, seemed keen on the idea of strategically resting more next season.

“Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season,” Embiid said after losing to the Raptors in the playoffs, “obviously I don’t want to miss that many games, but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that ... definitely got to take a better approach.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen. The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices -- vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin. 

The schedule-makers have taken extra precaution when booking the Sixers for primetime. Of the 13 second nights of a back-to-back on Philadelphia’s schedule, none of them were handpicked to be on national television (ESPN, TNT or ABC).

* * * 

Privately this summer, representatives from the league office have reached out to team brass to strongly convey the importance of the availability of its stars, especially on national TV games. While player health remains the top priority, teams have been told to keep in mind that the NBA is uniquely positioned to showcase its stars. With no facemasks, helmets or walls to shield fans from seeing the stars, it is the most intimate league in America.

“Let’s not kill the golden goose,” relayed one team executive who spoke to the league office this summer.

The NBA has tweaked the schedule to account for the rise of the DNP-Rest. In 2017, the league office lengthened the season by two weeks to squeeze in more rest days and reduce back-to-backs. After a series of high-profile healthy scratches, the NBA no longer schedules an ABC game in a back-to-back set -- but even building in additional off days sometimes isn’t enough.

The NBA isn’t just competing against Netflix and the NFL for eyeballs. It’s competing against NBA 2K, which, according to its parent company, has sold 90 million units worldwide. Video games are increasingly becoming so life-like and compelling that there is real expectation in league circles that fans could prefer the video game over the real thing, especially in the load management era.

If James, Leonard or George sit to rest, fans might tune out the actual Lakers-Clippers game in order to play as LeBron against Kawhi and PG-13 on their favorite gaming console.

Said one GM: “There’s no load management in 2K.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.