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Barber: The NBA, load management and mental health

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The Warriors have a dreaded “back-to-back” coming up, with a game at Orlando on Sunday night and another at Atlanta on Monday. You know what that means. If the Warriors are healthy — an elusive goal for the team this season — it’s likely a veteran starter such as Draymond Green or D’Angelo Russell or Kevon Looney (and perhaps all of them) will sit out one of the games as a precaution.

And the whispers about “load management” can begin anew.

The debate has died down a bit, but it won’t go away anytime soon. It can’t, because the idea of resting uninjured NBA players exposes a fundamental tension in professional sports.

The snag is this: Pro teams are in the business of winning. They are also in the business of entertaining consumers. Sometimes those two business models are in direct opposition, and that’s when you get something like the load management furor.

Giving players nights off is bad for the brand, obviously. Fans handing over half a paycheck to take the fam to an NBA game aren’t going to be happy if they arrive to find that Russell Westbrook or Kristaps Porzingis is taking a powder. More important (to the bottom line), a game with a missing star is a game that’s likely to plummet in the TV ratings. That’s the real reason people went nuts when the Los Angeles Clippers sat Kawhi Leonard, who has a chronic knee condition, for a game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 6. That game was an ESPN national broadcast.

The Clippers had plenty of precedent to fall back on, though. Most NBA teams practice load management to some extent. The Warriors have done it for a couple years now with their top players, with clear beneficial results.

The theory behind load management is obvious: An 82-game NBA regular season is a grueling blur of games, practice, conditioning and travel. So veteran players, or players with injury history, need some time off. The theory received its greatest confirmation last year, when the Toronto Raptors rested Leonard 22 times during the regular season. Yeah, it worked. The Raptors beat the Warriors to win the NBA Finals. Leonard was the series MVP.

The NBA is currently attempting to walk the top of the fence. It allows “rest games,” but strongly prefers its plainclothed superstars to be hurt. That’s why the league fined Clippers coach Doc Rivers $50,000 merely for telling reporters Leonard was “fine” the night of the Bucks game. The NBA insisted the forward was responding to a knee injury.

Ultimately, it’s impossible for the NBA, or any other league, to outlaw load management outright. If it ever tried to enforce a rule prohibiting rest days, teams would simply invent phantom injuries on a regular basis.

But accepting the reality of load management isn’t just a pragmatic conclusion. It’s the right thing to do. And the main reason is one that hasn’t entered the conversation much.

It has to do with another trend: The acknowledgement of mental health issues in professional sports.

Over the past few years, a veritable Hall of Fame roster of athletes has come forward to talk about their struggles with depression and anxiety. A highly truncated list includes football players Brandon Marshall and Joe Barksdale, swimmers Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, baseball players Joey Votto and David Freese, fighters Ronda Rousey and Oscar De La Hoya, tennis players Serena Williams and Mardy Fish, and hockey player Nick Boynton.

The trend mirrors a new level of societal discussion. We’re talking about our depression now, the first step toward removing stigma.

It would make sense that depression is particularly acute among professional athletes. More than most of us, they perform their jobs on a public stage, and are subject to the slings and arrows of a sometimes-spiteful pool of jurors. Athletes also work in a space where any show of vulnerability has traditionally been seen as weak and detrimental to the cause of winning. If you think your favorite players have made a habit of hiding headaches and ankle sprains over the years, imagine how many have masked the pain inside their thoughts.

It’s an important topic, and NBA players past and present have led the discussion. Some of the most powerful testimonies have come from Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Channing Frye, Paul Pierce and Jerry West.

In this context, how in the world could you tell an NBA player he isn’t entitled to a day off, scheduled or otherwise?

You can’t have it both ways. If we are going to welcome athletes who come forward to talk about their depression, to empathize with them and applaud their bravery, we can’t turn around and insist they play through the lows.

Jackie MacMullan, who has written incisively on the subject for ESPN, quoted an NBA Eastern Conference coach in 2018 as saying, “I’ve got three guys on my team — two on medication. Some days they’re fine. Some days they aren’t.”

Some days they aren’t. Liz Cambage knows all about that. Cambage, an Australian basketball player who currently plays for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, wrote about her struggles with depression for the Players’ Tribune in August.

“My mental health has negatively impacted my ability to do my job,” Cambage said. “First, on Saturday against the Wings, and then again on Monday against the Mystics. I took a DNP-Rest….. but here’s the truth of what it should have said: DNP-Mental Health.”

DNP stands for “Did Not Play.” Cambage took games off to settle her mind and adjust her meds. And if you read her account of having a panic attack outside the visitors’ locker room in Los Angeles, you’ll be fully convinced she did the right thing.

So yes, the NBA and other leagues (though because of the 82-game schedule and the small rosters, it’s uniquely a basketball issue) absolutely have to allow for mental-health rest days. It should be as easy as a player raising his/her hand and saying, “I need to sit this one out.” And if the NBA applies that rule, it should be obligated to allow physical recovery time, too. Not just out of a sense of consistency, but because we know by now that physical and mental health are interrelated in complicated ways.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way to address the effects of load management on the entertainment product. According to an ESPN story a couple weeks ago, nearly two-thirds of all games NBA players missed for precautionary reasons in 2018-19 came on one end of a back-to-back. The networks shouldn’t schedule any of those games for national broadcasts.

Maybe teams can work out a system of rebating a portion of ticket fees for fans who attend a game in which a star player rests. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of buyer beware, an unpleasantry that fans need to get used to.

Those discussions are worth having. But the discussion about whether Liz Cambage or Kawhi Leonard is entitled to a night off just for the hell of it? We’ve moved beyond that one.

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