NBA rest rules, explained: How new load management policy will impact national TV games, more
The NBA’s mission to curtail star players resting during the regular season might lose some of its punch in 2020-21 during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
While the league still sees the importance of big-name draws suiting up on national TV to attract viewers, it wants to come off as understanding of athlete fatigue following shortened vacations for playoff competitors. So when it announced fortified guidelines for load management during prime time broadcasts, it made clear it wouldn’t be so strict for most other contests.
NBA leadership has been in continuous conflict with teams about their execution of load management strategies — including last year with the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard — but doesn’t have the leverage it did previously to act with a heavy hand. Beyond the risk of coming off as insensitive to players already making significant concessions in order to play, in-person attendance at arenas will be limited by coronavirus concerns regardless of which stars are in uniform any given night.
It’s expected that teams coming off long postseason runs will be particularly careful with their best players in the early going before ramping up intensity in the second half of the campaign.
Leonard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler are among the players most likely to receive strategic days off over the first couple of months.
Here’s what to know about the NBA’s rules on resting players who aren’t injured in 2020-21:
What is load management in the NBA?
Load management is an offshoot of modern sports science research that can help predict when players are most vulnerable to injury and in need of protection. Teams have realized they can dramatically cut injury risk by planning rest days during road back-to-backs — and those who are deep enough can sometimes win regular season games without their stars.
Unlike in other sports, where no single player is expected to pull more physical weight than his or her teammates, isolation-based basketball offenses take a disproportionate toll on top scorers. That’s part of the reason certain players are given regular time off throughout the season when healthy while others are asked to play every contest.
Why did load management become a big deal?
Over the past decade, there has been a growing sentiment among teams and players that it’s not worth putting stars at risk for individual regular season games. That’s led to big names sitting out for national TV games in which the league (and many fans) want them to participate.
Kawhi Leonard, who sat out most of a season in San Antonio under mysterious conditions, is probably the most recognized member of the load management club, but veteran stars around the league have joined the trend. It’s here to stay, even if the NBA tries to keep it under control for its grandest occasions.
Part of the load management controversy comes from a broader cultural narrative about modern athletes being “softer” than the people who came before them. Days off are held up as proof of that sentiment. One of the many problems with the take, though, is that it implies rest is completely driven by the players. To the contrary, it’s usually an organizational strategy crafted with the influence of front-office executives and medical staffers. Trust between all parties is essential. Players are cognizant of their long-term well-being and willing to fight for their health, but it’s also in the interest of their franchises for them to be at full strength for the playoffs.
NBA load management rules for national TV games in 2020-21
NBA teams are not permitted to rest healthy players during games broadcast on national TV, or during road games when there are not “unusual circumstances.”
But the set of acceptable “unusual circumstances” for locally broadcasted away games has expanded this year to include prior workload and injury history, among other factors. In other words, NBA rest guidelines are going to be loose outside of the national TV games.
Are there penalties for breaking NBA rest rules?
Yes, at least in theory.
Teams will be fined at least $100,000 for breaking national TV protocol, according to an NBA memo, though investigation and subsequent enforcement methods are still unclear. That’s a per-game rate, meaning multiple illegal rests would lead to much larger total charges. A similar policy was in place last year.
Penalties for misconduct in games outside of national TV windows (ESPN, TNT, ABC) are less clear and might not be assessed. The league has discouraged teams from resting more than one healthy player per game or anyone on the road barring “unusual circumstances” that according to ESPN include a player’s age, injury history, COVID-19 recovery, season and career workload, and schedule issues.
What’s challenging for the NBA is being able to prove a team is breaking its load management policies — while truancy might seem obvious to fans in the context of a season, organizations are often able to point to minor past injuries in their explanations to the league.
How will the Clippers manage Kawhi Leonard’s minutes?
Load management is often talked about as a problem on the league level, potentially cutting into regular season fan interest. But it can also affect a locker room.
The Clippers last year rested Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while pushing others hard. Preferential treatment of stars reportedly created a rift within the team.
With Tyronn Lue now in charge, it’s worth monitoring how the Clippers choose to approach their best players. They were eliminated from the Orlando bubble in the Western Conference semifinals and had an abbreviated offseason of about three months. That’s the shortest break anyone on the team has experienced in the pros.
Will the Clippers again push the envelope of NBA policy on load management as result, or will they dial back days off for Leonard and George? That’s going to be a defining question in the race for the conference’s top seeds.
Do the Lakers have load management plans for LeBron James?
LeBron James turns 36 in the first month of the 2020-21 campaign. For as ageless as he has appeared throughout his incredible career, we are probably about to see the drop-off from his perch as one of the NBA’s elite players. The Lakers have a strong incentive to make sure they get his best in the playoffs, so they will consider letting him take breaks throughout the campaign when acceptable under league rules.
“We’ve had preliminary conversations about (rest), but we’re both of the mindset to see how it plays out and evaluate each day and each week how he’s feeling, and not lock in to any set plan,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said earlier this month. “It’s really going to be a day-to-day approach.”