Someone asked Doc Rivers, during his introductory Zoom session Monday as the 76ers' head coach, what he thought about what might be the two most controversial words in the NBA. Those words are not The Process, at least not anymore. Those words are not plummeting ratings, though they could be. Those words are load management.
“Have you seen me walk?” Rivers asked in return.
Yes. It’s a pigeon-toed shuffle, and it’s the product of Rivers' playing 13 years, 945 regular-season and postseason games, and nearly 26,000 minutes during his NBA career. That’s a hell of a toll, and Rivers cited it as a reason he is sympathetic to those present-day players who take some regularly scheduled days off, including several games, in the name of extending their careers and, theoretically, ensuring they don’t injure themselves or wear down before or during the playoffs. One of those players is Kawhi Leonard, whom Rivers coached this season with the Clippers. Another is Joel Embiid.
“I walk like that because there was no load management,” Rivers said. “So I’m hoping that it’s better for all these guys because I do think in the long run, it’ll keep them healthier longer and fresher longer, especially if you’re going to make a deep run, which I hope we do.”
Let’s deal with the issue of load management here purely through the prism of that question: whether it can help a team – and might help the Sixers – win a championship. There’s another dimension to the debate, one that considers whether a pro athlete, a person who is paid millions of dollars to entertain the public each night, abdicates some of his or her responsibility to those paying customers if he or she decides, despite being healthy and well-rested, to stay on the bench. That’s a worthy debate, but it’s not as relevant here. It’s a safe bet that if the Sixers knew, with certainty, that limiting Embiid to, say, 50 regular-season games would guarantee them a berth in the NBA Finals, the team and its fans would happily accept those terms and make that sacrifice.
So, apart from whether it’s an ethical strategy, is it an effective one? Rivers said that it depends on the player.
“Load management is so individual-based,” he said. "It’s not team-based. Every individual has a limit, right? We’ll figure that out. Ben [Simmons], when healthy, seems to play more games right now. Joel seems like he’s gradually upticking, which is a good thing. It’s not just that. It’s minutes. It’s practice time. It encompasses a lot of stuff. Every team has to deal with it, and we’ll have to deal with it here, and we’ll probably figure it out. ...
“You listen. You really do. You pay attention to your staff. You pay attention to your players. And you figure it out.”
Except what does “figure it out” really mean? Take Leonard. During the 2018-19 season, when he was with the Toronto Raptors, he appeared in just 60 regular-season games and averaged 34 minutes in those games. Then he cranked it up for the postseason, starting all 24 games, averaging more than 39 minutes and more than 30 points, never playing better in his life, leading the Raptors to their first championship.
Rivers and the Clippers employed the same approach with him this season; Leonard’s regular-season and playoff averages were virtually identical. Yet the Clippers, favored to win the Western Conference, squandered a three-games-to-one lead in the second round and lost to the Denver Nuggets. And the manner in which they lost – blowing double-digit leads late in Games 5 through 7, their superstar struggling in those fourth quarters – suggested that neither Leonard nor his teammates had conditioned and girded themselves sufficiently for the crucible of multiple best-of-seven series.
Consider, too, the manner in which Rivers deployed his best players during his most successful stretch as a coach: three seasons with the Celtics, from 2007 through 2010. Over that span, Boston won 71% of its regular-season games, reached the NBA Finals twice, and won the championship in 2008, and Rivers leaned heavily on his four best players: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo.
Only Garnett appeared in fewer than 70 games in any of those regular seasons (he did so twice, appearing in 57 in 2008-09, when he missed the playoffs with a leg injury, and 69 in ’09-10). And none of those four averaged fewer than 29.9 minutes per game. Come the playoffs, Rivers asked even more from them, and they delivered: The Celtics played 64 postseason games during that period. Pierce, Allen, and Rondo played all 64. And none of them averaged fewer than 32 minutes a game.
“There’s a happy medium that you have to meet,” Rivers said. “I will say there are years where I felt like I was on the wrong side of that. There are years that I felt I was on the positive side of that. You just have to find the rhythm of your team each year along with the science. You do have to do both.”
So what’s the right approach for Embiid and Simmons? When it comes to managing their workloads, the latter is less of a concern. Simmons' problem isn’t his conditioning. In fact, if he tuckered himself out by shooting more jump shots, everyone would be thrilled. No, Embiid is the unknown here. Having already been weakened by a stomach illness, he appeared gassed by the end of Game 7 of last year’s second-round series against the Raptors. Despite Rivers' use of the word “upticking,” Embiid’s minutes-per-game average actually dropped this season (29.5) from last season (33.7), though he did seem rejuvenated in the playoffs.
Of course, the circumstances were different then, too. The Sixers had so little depth, especially once they lost Simmons to a knee injury, that they couldn’t afford to have Embiid rest too long, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t have the same problem next season. By that standard, the answer is easy: All things being equal, play 'em, Doc. Play 'em till they drop.