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  • Writer's pictureGabby Painter

The NBA’s ‘Player Participation Policy’: How Cracking Down on Load Management Could Lead to Lack of Recognition for Stars like Joel Embiid

Load management is the practice of strategically resting players to prevent injuries.[1] It has become common practice in the NBA among star and veteran players and teams with championship aspirations.[2] However, recent data suggests the perceived benefits of load management might not be as substantial as previously believed, and the NBA implemented a strict Player Participation Policy for the 2023-2024 season in response.[3] While the policy attempts to improve fan experience by encouraging stars to play in nationally televised games, it could ultimately be detrimental to players like reigning MVP, Joel Embiid.[4]

 

League History of Load Management


The concept of load management entered the mainstream of the NBA in the 2010s when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich began resting his star players during nationally televised and back-to-back games.[5] The Spurs’ load management strategy received attention from the league in 2012 when then-NBA Commissioner David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 for resting four star players (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Danny Green) during a nationally televised game against the defending champions, the Miami Heat.[6] The fine was imposed because none of the resting players had known injuries, and their resting was deemed a “disservice to the league and fans.[7]

 

Nevertheless, the $250,000 fine imposed on the Spurs in 2012 did not stunt the prevalence of load management.[8] In response, the NBA introduced a Player Resting Policy (PRP) for the 2017-2018 season, aiming to limit resting healthy players in nationally televised games, away games, and resting multiple players simultaneously, with potential fines of $100,000 for violations.[9] Despite the PRP, load management persisted, most notably with Kawhi Leonard, who, in the 2018-2019 season, played only 60 of 82 games, avoiding back-to-backs and missing multiple nationally televised games.[10] Leonard's approach proved successful, leading the Raptors to their first championship and earning him the finals MVP award.[11] He attributed these successes to being able to rest throughout the season, and said “When it got bad, we ended up taking four or five games off. And, you know, if we didn't do that, I wouldn't be here right now. The way we laid out the schedule was good.”[12]

 

However, recent data following the 2022-2023 season contradicts the belief that load management reduces injury rates.[13] This revelation prompted current NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, to enact a more stringent policy prohibiting the practice.[14]

 

2023-2024 Player Participation Policy


The NBA’s “Player Participation Policy” (PPP), implemented for the 2023-2024 season, aims to enhance competitive fairness, game integrity, transparency, and fan interest.[15] The PPP differs from the 2017 PRP because it strictly outlines what constitutes non-league approved player absences from games and threatens varying degrees of investigation and disciplinary actions for failure to adhere to these standards.[16] The PPP prioritizes nationally televised and in-season tournament games and focuses on “star players,” which are defined as someone who has made an All-Star or All-NBA team in the past three seasons.[17]

 

There are three types of disciplinary and investigatory actions outlined in the policy.[18] First, automatic investigations occur if multiple star players are absent in a game, star players are absent in nationally televised or in-season tournament games, or if there are inconsistent statements about a player’s injury status.[19] Second, discretionary investigations are for various circumstances, including multi-game absences due to injury, pre-approved back-to-back restrictions, personal reasons, rare circumstances, roster management, and end-of-season flexibility.[20] Lastly, circumstantial discretionary investigations are for patterns of one-game absences on the road, long-term shutdowns affecting game integrity, or other unusual absence patterns.[21]

 

The league's enforcement mechanism of the PPP includes a standard review for injury-related absences, requiring full cooperation from teams and players during investigations.[22] Violations of the PPP may result in fines, player compensation reductions, and potential suspensions, escalating with repeated offenses.[23] To avoid penalties, teams are encouraged to communicate extensively with the league office on PPP compliance issues and notify in advance of potential policy implications for star player absences.[24] Overall, the PPP establishes a significantly stricter standard for player participation in the 2023-2024 season.[25]

 

The MVP Award & Other Honors


In addition to the PPP, the NBA introduced a 65-game requirement for award eligibility.[26] This requirement includes All-NBA teams and the MVP award.[27] To put this new requirement in perspective, notable 2022-2023 all-stars Giannis Antetokounmpo (63 games played), Damian Lillard (58), Steph Curry (56), and Lebron James (55) would have been ineligible for recognition last season.[28] Beyond prestige, making an All-NBA team can have a direct impact on player salary.[29] Teams can offer 5% more of the salary cap than the normal amount to a player if they made an All-NBA team in the previous season or two All-NBA teams in the previous three years.[30] With the 65-game requirement to make All-NBA teams, players could risk losing millions in contract extensions.[31] Players falling short of the 65 games played do have a two-day window to file a grievance, considered only with clear evidence of intentionally restricting a player accepted, an arbitration hearing with the player, team, player’s union, and league.[32] The only other exception to the rule is a season-ending injury just before meeting the 65-game requirement (at least 62 games played).[33]

 

 

What This Means for Joel Embiid


The new 65-game eligibility requirement poses a challenge for players like Joel Embiid, the reigning MVP and early season frontrunner for this year's award.[34] Embiid has an impressive streak of five consecutive All-NBA teams, and on January 22, 2024, had a historic 70-point, 18 rebound, and 5 assist performance which set the Sixers' franchise record for the most points scored in a single game.[35] Embiid is averaging 35 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists this season, an increase in all his averages from his 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists in his MVP campaign last year.[36]  However, on February 6, 2024, Embiid underwent surgery for a knee injury.[37] Prior to the procedure, he’d missed 13 of the Sixers’ 47 games, leaving him with only 4 remaining absences to remain eligible under the new rule.[38] With a minimum reevaluation time of 6 to 8 weeks, Embiid will be ineligible for this season’s MVP award and all-NBA team upon his return.[39]

 

This situation raises concerns that a historic season by an all-time great center might go unrecognized due to policy technicalities.[40] While Embiid has stated he is prioritizing a healthy playoff run over individual awards, fans and analysts have advocated for recognition of his remarkable season and questioned the strictness of the new participation policy.[41] Acknowledging that the NBA is a business that benefits from its star players playing in nationally televised games, the question still arises: Should the league be so strict with load management policies that stars like Joel Embiid must decide between a healthy playoff run and the chance to win an MVP award or other honors?[42]

 

While load management is a reality in the NBA, the strictness of these policies could potentially have more harmful consequences than what they aim to protect against.[43] The intent of load management restrictions was to prevent healthy players from missing games; however, the minimum game requirement has unfairly impacted players who are dealing with serious injury.[44] As the league cracks down on load management, there's valid concern that the 2023-2024 season might witness the first MVP awarded not solely on merit but because competing players were deemed ineligible due to policy technicalities.[45]


Sources:


[1] See Joe Vardon & Sam Amick, NBA Says ‘Load Management’ No Longer Supported by Scientific Data: “Every Player Should Want to Play 82 Games,” THE ATHLETIC (Oct. 11, 2023), https://theathletic.com/4954304/2023/10/11/nba-load-management-data-analysis-no-longer-supported/#.

[2] See What is NBA Load Management?, ROOKIE ROAD (July 17, 2023), https://www.rookieroad.com/basketball/what-is-nba-load-management-4237574/.

[3] See Brett Siegel, Adam Silver Explains NBA’s Newest Player Performance Policies, CLUTCH POINTS (Sept. 13, 2023), https://clutchpoints.com/nba-news-adam-silver-explains-new-load-management-rules.

[4] See Sam Amick, Why Joel Embiid Deserved Better, and What His Injury Says About the NBA 65-Game Rule, THE ATHLETIC (Jan. 31, 2024), https://theathletic.com/5240548/2024/01/31/joel-embiid-knee-injury-nba-65-game-rule/.

[5] See Ben Golliver, Spurs Fined 250k for Resting Players, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (Nov. 30, 2012), https://www.si.com/nba/2012/11/30/gregg-popovich-david-stern-spurs-fined-nba.

[6] See id.

[7] See id.

[8] For further discussion of how load management has been used with Kawhi Leonard, see infra notes 10–12.

[9] See Bobby Marks, How the NBA’s Rule on Resting Stars Work, ESPN (Oct. 10, 2023), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/38386013/how-nba-new-rules-resting-stars-work.

[10] See Kawhi Leonard Had 60 Games Played in 2018-19., STATMUSE, https://www.statmuse.com/nba/ask?q=how+many+games+have+kawhi+leonard+missed+2018-2019+season (last visited Feb. 26, 2024).

[11] See Jordan Greer, Inside Kawhi Leonard’s Missed Games & Load Management: Complete Injury History with Clippers, Raptors, & Spurs, THE SPORTING NEWS (Nov. 17, 2022), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nba/news/kawhi-leonard-injury-history-clippers-raptors-spurs-games-missed/pp3yseslfqitpywxftkoztkh.

[12] See id.

[13] See Siegel, supra note 3.

[14] See id.

[16] See id. at 2–5.

[17] See Vardon et al., supra note 1.

[18] For further discussion of disciplinary and investigatory actions outlined in the policy, see infra notes 19–21.

[19] See Vardon et al., supra note 1.

[20] See id.

[21] See id.

[22] See id.

[23] See id.

[24] See id.

[25] See id.

[26] See Bryan Toporek, New NBA 65-Game Rule to Qualify for Awards Backfires as Players Express Frustration, FORBES (Jan. 31, 2024), https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryantoporek/2024/01/31/new-nba-65-game-rule-to-qualify-for-awards-backfires-as-players-express-frustration/?sh=74e8de9c564c.

[27] See id.

[28] See Tim Bontemps & Bobby Marks, A New Rule is Changing the NBA’s Awards Race; It Could Also Cost Players Millions, ESPN (Jan. 16, 2024), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/39318248/nba-65-game-rule-affect-mvp-race-supermax-deals.

[29] See Svetozar Pavlovic, How Can All-NBA Teams Selection Affect Player Salaries, AS (May 10, 2023), https://en.as.com/nba/how-can-all-nba-teams-selection-affect-players-salaries-n/.

[30] See id.

[31] See id.

[32] See Tess DeMeyer & Sam Amick, What’s the NBA’s 65-Game Rule? The New Provision That Maye JeapordizeJeopardize Joel Embiid’s MVP Candidacy, THE ATHLETIC (Jan 31, 2024), https://theathletic.com/5242273/2024/01/31/nba-65-game-rule-joel-embiid/#.

[33] See id.

[34] For further discussion of how the eligibility requirement poses a challenge for players like Joel Embiid, see infra notes 35–42.

[35] See Tim Bontemps, Joel Embiid Drops 70, Breaking Wilt Chamberlin’s 76ers Record, ESPN (Jan. 22, 2024), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/39366170/philadelphia-76ers-star-joel-embiid-drops-70-spurs-win.

[36] Joel Embiid Averaged 33.1 Points, 10.2 Rebounds and 4.2 Assists in 66 Games in 2022-23. He Was Selected to Play in His Sixth All-Star Games, and Won His First MVP Award., STATMUSE https://www.statmuse.com/nba/ask?q=joel+embiid+2022-2023 (last visited Feb. 26, 2024).

[37] See Adrian Wojnarowski, 76ers’ Joel Embiid Out at Least 4 weeks After Knee Procedure, ESPN (Feb. 6, 2024), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/39470380/76ers-joel-embiid-least-4-weeks-knee-procedure.

[38] See Sam Quin, Joel Embiid Injury Update: 76ers Star will Miss Game vs. Jazz to Receive Further Evaluation on Left Knee, CBS SPORTS (Jan 31, 2024), https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/joel-embiid-injury-update-76ers-star-will-miss-game-vs-jazz-to-receive-further-evaluation-on-left-knee/#:~:text=He%27s%20missed%2012%20out%20of,to%20a%20left%20knee%20injury.

[39] See DeMeyer et al., supra note 30.

[40] See Amick, supra note 4.

[41] See id.

[42] See id.

[43] See Toporek, supra note 24.

[44] For further discussion of how the minimum game requirement has unfairly impacted players who are dealing with serious injuries, see supra notes 5, 25, & 31.

[45] See Bontemps et al., supra note 26.

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