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?
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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.
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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).
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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.”