Lowe: The future for load management and a potential new NBA schedule


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Nov 26, 2019

  • Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer

You are forgiven if you got lost somewhere amid the morass of NBA semantics surrounding Kawhi Leonard missing nationally televised games against the Utah Jazz on Oct. 30 and the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 6 — both part of back-to-backs.

To review: When it became public that the LA Clippers would sit Leonard for the Nov. 6 contest, the initial assumption in the media and among rival teams was that Leonard was being held out under a “load management” program similar to the one the Toronto Raptors crafted for him last season.

If that was code for resting, weren’t the Clippers in violation of the league’s resting policy, implemented in 2017 — and thus subject to a fine of at least $100,000? Wasn’t Leonard cheating fans?

But then, a plot twist: The league office clarified to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Leonard was legitimately injured — with a sore knee. He was not resting. This was not load management. The Clippers were in the clear! (Leonard would end up missing three straight games in mid-November.)

But wait: Another plot twist! The league 24 hours later fined the Clippers $50,000 for pregame comments from coach Doc Rivers in which he declared that Leonard “feels great.” How could Leonard be both feeling great and injured? The disconnect cost the Clips.

Again: It’s understandable if you threw your hands in the air and gave up trying to understand this. The NBA concedes it was partly to blame for the haziness. Last season and earlier this season, it allowed teams to use “load management” as a designation both for players who were just resting — thus potentially subjecting their team to penalties under the resting policy — and for those nursing some injury.

The NBA sought to eliminate such confusion in the wake of this month’s Leonard brouhaha, as Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, told ESPN in an interview last week. The league outlined new guidelines for injury reporting in a Nov. 11 memo to teams, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN.

The short version: Load management is now rest. Period. If you see that term, it will mean a healthy player is taking the night off. If skipping that particular game violates the league’s resting policy, that player’s team will be penalized.

“What has been confusing — and I’m not picking on Kawhi — but ‘load management’ was one of the causes people put out for why he sat out, and it’s not,” Spruell said. “He’s an injured player.”

The resting policy prohibits teams from sitting healthy players in “high-profile” nationally televised games. It requires teams rest players at home absent some “unusual circumstances,” the idea being that home fans get many chances to see their teams’ stars. The league also has instructed teams not to rest multiple healthy players in the same game, barring those same “unusual circumstances.”

Taken to an extreme, the only game type in which a team may rest a healthy player is a home game broadcast on local television. For teams on national TV a lot, there aren’t as many of those as you’d think. But there are still enough to carve out a decent number of rest days, at least in the league’s view.

The league has robust investigatory authority to make sure teams obey the rules. A team cannot simply list a player as out with a sore whatever without evidence and sit that player in a national TV game that would normally trigger the league’s resting policy, Spruell said.

For any injury, the NBA requires that teams submit documentary proof into a league-supervised portal, according to Spruell and team medical personnel who spoke to ESPN. Those documents can and should include official reports from examinations by trainers and team doctors, medical imaging and other documents, should the league request them.

“They get everything,” one team medical staffer told ESPN.

If that is not enough, the league might require team doctors hop on the phone with John DiFiori, the NBA’s director of sports medicine, Spruell said. If a team wants to rest a healthy player in any game that would normally fall under the resting policy, they must call the league office at least 48 hours in advance, the memo states. In practice, they are calling much sooner, according to Spruell and team personnel. Some teams have called a week in advance to test the waters on resting a healthy player, only to end up playing him anyway, league officials said.

The league values such planning. They contacted the Clippers in the offseason and asked if the team had any general road map for when Leonard might sit out, sources said. The Clippers replied that they could not provide one at that point.

In the end, all these decisions — whether a team may rest a healthy player in a game normally subject to the resting policy, or whether a player designated as “injured” truly is injured — can be sent as high as Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, for approval.

“We are not getting gamed,” Spruell said.

Due to privacy concerns, the league has strict rules over who has access to a player’s medical information, Spruell said. Even some league officials who are close to this process do not see those records. This is of paramount importance to the players’ union.

By the revised definition, no player has missed any national TV game this season due to load management or rest, league officials said.

Team personnel said the league has been flexible. No player is 100 percent healthy once the season really gets going, trainers and doctors said. If a player needs rest, team personnel can ask that player what feels sore, provide some treatment, and document said treatment in a way that satisfies league oversight. They can then designate that player as having a specific injury and sit him without penalty for a game subject to the league’s resting policy, team personnel said. The player is classified as injured, not resting.

If that game is part of a back-to-back featuring one national TV game and one local broadcast, the league might suggest sitting the player on the local broadcast — even if that is a road game.

The league also has given more leeway to players with chronic injuries and major injury histories, as well as those recovering from serious acute injuries. For now, that group includes Leonard, Joel Embiid, Dejounte Murray and Kristaps Porzingis, among others. A team wishing to sit one of those players in a game that would normally fall under the resting policy can list him as injured and feel confident the league will approve the designation. They also could simply rest him (“load management”) on one end of a back-to-back and argue such a scenario — injury history, back-to-back game — fits the “unusual circumstances” exception to the resting policy.

If given enough notice, the league would again push the team to make the player available for whichever end of the back-to-back — if either — is scheduled for national TV.

A player in this category could recover to the point that a past injury may no longer be used to skirt the league’s resting rules, Spruell said. The league would sort that out on a case-by-case basis, in conjunction with the player’s team and the players’ union, officials said.

The league also has allowed for some wiggle room on what constitutes a “high-profile” national TV game, sources said. A game on NBA TV might not be the same as a game on ESPN or TNT. A Golden State WarriorsNew Orleans Pelicans game without Zion Williamson and most of Golden State’s foundational stars might no longer qualify as “high profile” — providing teams more flexibility in resting healthy players.

On a semi-related note, the NBA and its broadcast partners — ESPN included — have recently discussed the possibility and feasibility of more aggressively “flexing” out scheduled national TV games that do not look as appealing in light of injuries and team performance, sources said. Some mega-teams — the Lakers, for example — will never be flexed regardless of injury. On some national TV nights, there are few alternatives on the schedule.

Teams know they have to act in good faith. The NBA will detect any abuse of resting rules and injury designations. Two seasons ago, the league warned the Chicago Bulls about resting too many healthy players at once.

All of this touches on the larger issue of ratings decline and the challenge in making each night of an 82-game regular season appointment television. As Wojnarowski and I reported over the weekend (with a big assist from Jonathan Givony), the league and the players’ union are in serious talks over major scheduling adjustments designed to spark fan interest. The biggest:

  • a midseason tournament similar to those used in European leagues;

  • a play-in tournament, described here, for the final two playoff spots in each conference;

  • a proposal to re-seed what are now the conference finals by overall record, so the teams with the two best remaining records cannot face each other until the NBA Finals;

  • reducing the base regular season from 82 to 78 games.

Although the league hopes to introduce these changes — pending a vote of the board of governors — for the 75th-anniversary season in 2021-22, they are not intended as a one-off to commemorate that milestone campaign, Spruell said.

“We are looking at the short-term and long-term benefits of doing something less than 82,” Spruell said.

Some team executives are either enthusiastically for or against these proposals, but the overall reaction has been a sort of lukewarm indifference. Even those who don’t like the ideas on some level concede they can’t really do much harm as compared to the status quo.

Scattered thoughts:

• I like the play-in tournament, and I have since breaking the news about this particular proposal in February 2018. It strikes a nice balance between rewarding regular-season achievement while also creating a new incentive for teams toward the bottom of the standings to try until almost the end.

There are always going to be trade-offs to change at this scope. Is it “fair” that a No. 7 seed that wins, say, eight more games than the No. 10 seed before the play-in tournament could suddenly find itself at grave risk of losing a playoff spot to that inferior No. 10 seed — due to injury, poor play, bad matchups, whatever? Perhaps not. But if that is the cost of coaxing Nos. 10, 11 and 12 into going all-out into April, I’ll accept it. There are too many unwatchable games right now in March and April.

• The midseason tournament will be the toughest sell. Teams are skeptical that anyone will really care about winning it. The league and union are discussing bonuses for players, but we have seen in the All-Star Game that fringe bonuses will not be enough. Why would a team contending for the actual NBA title risk playing its best players heavy minutes in November and December to win some cup with zero history behind it?

Maybe they wouldn’t. The NBA can apply the resting rule to all tournament games, but that only requires teams play healthy players. It does not control how many minutes teams play them.

But teams in the middle might go hard for it. Preliminary games under the current proposal are built into the larger regular-season schedule, so teams can approach those as they would normal games. Both teams and players would have some financial incentive to make this tournament an event that sells. Whatever money it generates would presumably be included as basketball-related income, which determines the team salary cap — and thus how much players make in the aggregate.

Moving to a 78-game schedule means some teams would lose out on revenue from two home games. They would be looking to make that up in the midseason tournament.

If given enough time, these kinds of new events pick up some organic power and importance. If it’s a thing for long enough, then it becomes a thing people care about. But it might take time. The NBA has to be ready for this to look silly in the first few years — for criticism, players sitting out, and elite teams poking fun at middling try-hards chasing the junior varsity cup.

Ride it out long enough and this could work. There is nothing inherently dumb about the idea.

• I surrender to the November/December timing of a midseason tournament, even though it feels so early. Teams are barely discovering who they are. But the All-Star break appears to be out. Ditto for Christmas. Weekend games in January run into postseason football. I like the idea of leveraging March Madness fervor by holding the final rounds on off nights of the NCAA tournament, but that is very late in the NBA season.

I do wonder if there is some way for the NBA to hold the semis or the finals on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — already an important day on the schedule — but that January window is complicated.

Maybe this timing is right. By late November, the anticipation and novelty of the early season has faded. This might give some games more juice.

• One proposal from a couple of team employees: Guarantee the winning team a playoff spot. That’s interesting. It doesn’t really impact the elite teams. Some ultra-tankers might not even want a playoff spot if it removes them from the lottery. (They probably wouldn’t want to turn off their fans by tanking the midseason tournament, either.) How would clinching a playoff spot in December change behavior over the rest of the season for a middling playoff team?

• How about this: If the winning team ends up making the playoffs anyway, they get a spot in the draft lottery? That is one way to motivate contenders. It also risks an elite team winning the No. 1 pick, and even some proponents of dramatic lottery reform get a little queasy when you bring up those kinds of scenarios.

• By the way: Teams have been formally proposing schedule tweaks for years. At least one has advocated for a 58-game schedule, with each team playing every other team twice. (Even the proposing team knows that is too radical right now.)

One Eastern Conference executive submitted a proposal that in its own way includes midseason and play-in tournaments: a 62-game regular season, after which teams are placed into three tiers based on their record in those 62 games. Teams then play 18 games within their tier — facing each team home and away — bringing the season to 80 games.

Tier 1 features the teams with the top five records in each conference after 62 games. Tier play then would determine the order of the top five playoff seeds in each conference.

Tier 2 features teams 6-10 in each conference after 62 games. The 18 games within that group would determine seeds 6-8 in each conference — basically, the play-in tournament.

Tier 3 features the bottom 10 teams jostling in what could admittedly be some pretty forgettable games. Perhaps winning could be linked to better lottery odds.

It would be simpler to divide teams into tiers based on record, without regard to conference affiliation. The author of this proposal stressed that he crafted it specifically to take into account the political realities of conferences and even divisions. It also could create arena booking conflicts.

• I’m still digesting the reseeded final four. It is really a watered-down version of taking the 16 best teams into the playoffs, regardless of conference affiliation. In opposing that concept, the league has argued (among other things) that historic and geographic rivalries would suffer since we would not see rival teams match up as often in the postseason. There is some truth to that.

This new final four might thread the needle. We could still get Philly-Boston type series in the first two rounds, and then again (for the first time) in the Finals. It would cut travel in the championship round.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how often the problem this purports to solve — the two best teams by a significant margin being in the same conference — really happens.

The go-to example will be 2018, when the Warriors and Rockets faced off in an epic seven-game Western Conference finals before Golden State walloped an overmatched 50-win Cleveland team in the Finals. But that is a bit of an outlier. (Toronto also had a better record than Golden State in 2018, though reseeding still would have separated the Rockets and Warriors in the semifinals.)

There is also something cool about the two NBA Finalists having played each other only twice in the regular season. (And in many years, injuries and rest render one or both such games almost irrelevant as predictors.) It makes the Finals feel like an event — something we haven’t seen before.

I dunno. I’m still running it through my head and debating with league insiders.

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