The NBA lacks the will to solve its load management problem

Masai Ujiri had a bold summer ahead of the 2018-19 season.

the Toronto Raptors‘ GM relieved the reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey of his duties and replaced him with Nick Nurse, the head coach of the team’s G League affiliate. It was an outside-the-box move for a team that had loads of regular-season success but couldn’t get over the hump.

But most notably, Ujiri traded franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for enigmatic superstar Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had an unceremonious ending to his brilliant run with San Antonio. He was in disagreement with the organization when it came to his right quadriceps tendinopathy injury. The ailment cost the 2014 Finals MVP all but nine games that season.

To the Raptors’ credit, they took a different approach with the two-time defensive player of the year. Leonard played in 60 games that season and didn’t play in back-to-backs. The rest apparently paid off as Leonard had a monster postseason and led Toronto to his first NBA title, taking home his second Finals MVP award.

It feels safe to say the Larry O’Brien Trophy doesn’t make its way to The Great White North without load management.

“It’s hard to know what other teams are doing as far as load management,” Nurse said pregame Monday. “It’s even hard to kind of keep up with it of who’s doing what or who needs to do what.

“I just say this … you used to be able to kind of get eight, nine guys and roll through the season. You need 13 or 14 to play the seasons now. For whatever the myriad of reasons that we’re finding out it seems like [players are] missing a lot more games than they were 10 years ago or eight years ago.”

If you’re reading this article, you’re likely a big NBA fan. So, you’ve likely already heard about Mavericks’ superstar Luka Doncic resting last week and the boy who traveled “5,958 miles just to see Luka” in Cleveland. Making it even more unfortunate is that Doncic didn’t even make the trip.

Ultimately, the MVP candidate and Mavericks organization did right by the young manbut the discourse had already begun.

On one hand, the 82-game schedule can be grueling. In Leonard’s case — and the case of many players that are the subject of load management — he had a lingering injury that needed to be handled with care to avoid a prolonged absence. In the case of Doncic and the Mavs, it was Dallas’ third set of back-to-backs in two weeks and Luka was nursing a nagging right thigh strain.

The Raptors’ treatment of Leonard paid the biggest of dividends. The Mavericks are hoping Doncic sitting out a random December game in Cleveland can benefit them in May and June.

On the other hand, there’s a fairness won’t somebody please think of the children?! argument to be made. NBA tickets are not cheap and getting to see your favorite athlete as a child is legitimately priceless. Would I be writing this column if I didn’t get to see a young Allen Iverson crossing people over in the nosebleeds? Maybe not.

A similar situation happened in Philadelphia last week. Steph Curry missed his yearly visit to the Wells Fargo Center because of a shoulder injury that will sideline him for a few weeks. While there’s an obvious difference between an injury that will take weeks to heal and load management, there were still plenty of folks wearing blue and yellow No. 30 jerseys that went home disappointed.

The Warriors were also without Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. The game wound up being more competitive than you would’ve predicted with Golden State missing 3/5 of its starting lineup, but it definitely took a little juice out of the matchup.

A couple nights prior, the Brooklyn Nets were fined for resting helped their roster on the second half of a back-to-back in Indiana.

It does leave coaches in a bind. Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn’s most important mission is to deliver Kevin Durant, who is tied for fifth in the league in minutes per game at age 34, to the postseason healthy.

Otherwise, Brooklyn has little chance of competing for anything.

“I would say to that fan that I’m looking out for Kevin Durant’s future,” Vaughn said, via ESPN. “I’m looking out for the organization’s future. And really apologize if this was the game you chose. But he’s given all that he’s had in every game since the beginning of this season.”

For the Sixers, they have Joel Embiid, who’s dealt with a litany of injuries and (much to his chagrin) has been under careful load management throughout his career. They also have 33-year-old James Harden, fresh off a severe hamstring injury, leading the NBA minutes per game.

The balance is difficult.

“I’ve been through that with teams where we had guys never play, never practice,” sixers head coach Doc Rivers said last week. “It’s hard to get any rhythm with your basketball team, and then it’s hard on the fans too who pay for that. So, I don’t know what the solution is.

“I know I have to be the shepherd of my team and I have to do what’s right for the Philadelphia 76ers. And if that’s meaning a guy has to sit one game, or here and there for us to get to our goals, then I should actually do that. But then the other part of that is not playing in games. It’s an issue — and I don’t know the answer.”

But there actually is a solution.

The NBA owners and people that stand to lose a lot of money don’t want to hear it, but playing less games and eliminating back-to-backs is the only way.

With that said, it won’t happen. The NFL, a sport that can literally cause brain damage (not shaming anyone, I still watch football), recently expanded its season from 16 to 17 games. MLB expanded its playoff field, adding on to its 162-game regular season. Even the NHL is reportedly considering expanding its regular season from 82 to 84 games.

Players make a lot of money. It’s part of the gig. I get it. But they are the product. They’re the reason people spend their hard-earned money on tickets and deal with packed parking lots and buy $15 beers. They deserve to have their health be considered the top priority.

“I think it’s important to play for the fans, right?” Nurse said. “There’s a lot of people that want to see guys play. Sometimes they come once a year to your city and it’s a big deal for people. But I think, overall, health and safety always has to remain at the top of the priority list.”

If I’m a fan of the Mavericks, will I care that Luka missed a regular-season game in Cleveland if he gets a big fat ring next opening night?

Ask a Raptors fan.

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