Load management made an early appearance in the 2019-20 NBA season when Kawhi Leonard sat out the Clippers’ fifth game of the year on Wednesday (on national TV, gasp!) despite reportedly being healthy enough to play.
It’s hard to argue with the benefits of load management, especially in Leonard’s case. He won a title last season on a restricted regular season schedule and benefited from a similarly light minutes load back in his San Antonio days. The Spurs saw tremendous longevity out of their stars during the 2010s in part due to their commitment to reducing their minutes and games played.
That brings us to the Lakers, who start the year with two superstars who could theoretically benefit from some rest throughout the regular season. LeBron James will turn 35 in December, has played more minutes than any active player, and just suffered the first major injury of his career last season. Anthony Davis is famously brittle and has exceeded 70 games in a season only twice in his six prior NBA campaigns.
Tuesday’s game against Memphis felt like a prime opportunity for the Lakers to start down the path of load management. Davis had aggravated his shoulder in Sunday’s win over Charlotte and had to spend two days rehabbing to be ready to play. But instead of resting against an overmatched opponent, he gutted it out. If the Lakers — and Davis himself — were unwilling to try rest in a game of that limited magnitude, it seems unlikely that load management will be a preferred route for the team this season.
Frank Vogel said as much during training camp, indicating that a team with nine new player needed to develop rhythm and continuity, which simply isn’t possible without actually playing games.
That means the Lakers will have to find different ways of load managing their stars without actually sitting them. Fortunately, the team is already employing a few methods.
The goal of sitting games is to reduce playing time, which can also be achieved by just playing fewer minutes. James is averaging 32.5 minutes through his first four games, the lowest total of his career. Davis is at 33.3 minutes, which is the essentially his lowest total since his rookie season (there were extenuating circumstances regarding Davis’ playing time last year).
When they’re on the court together, Vogel believes that the confluence of two stars will enable both of them to have to do less. That theory has some merit — James has had some slow scoring starts and the team has been boosted by Davis, while the opposite scenario took place during the preseason.
Where that theory doesn’t hold water is when the two have to play separately, and the Lakers’ limited perimeter players don’t have the ball-handling chops to lessen the playmaking burden. Both Davis and James have usage rates in the 98th percentile or higher thus far, per Cleaning the Glass. Although those numbers will presumably drop with the returns of Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo, it won’t be by much.
Vogel has been successful in helping ease Davis’ workload in his positional deployment. Davis made it abundantly clear when he was acquired that he prefers not to play center, and even though he has acquiesced to playing the five when necessary, the Lakers and Davis would rather he avoid the physical toll. The benefit to that isn’t just getting to defend smaller players, it’s also on the glass, where opposing teams can’t send multiple players to box out Davis. It’s worth considering if repeatedly posting up is the right way to keep Davis fresh on offense, but the pick-and-roll should become a greater part of Davis’ diet when more ball-handlers are available. Davis has clearly thrived at power forward, and continuing to play the four during the regular season is a simple solution.
Another way the Lakers appear to be saving their stars is by limiting practice time. The team has had multiple cancelled practices over the first two weeks of the season, a tried and true characteristic of veteran teams, a noticeably different approach from the last several seasons. Whether the Lakers have enough familiarity to eschew practice this early in the year is unclear, but it’s one more way to avoid undue wear and tear on Davis and James.
There’s also the long-running joke that James conserves energy by not playing defense during the regular season, but his defensive rating to date of 101.5 points per 100 possessions (small sample size, of course) is pretty excellent.
Both of the Lakers’ stars want the responsibility that comes with leading a team on and off the court. They both seem to agree that their presence in each and every game is their preferred method of demonstrating that leadership. If that’s the case, then the Lakers have to be a bit more creative in ensuring that the pair is healthy and fresh come playoff time. The team has managed to find a few strategies thus far, albeit in home games against some lesser competition. But the real test is yet to come, and if the Lakers pass it, they may start a new type of load management trend.