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Ja Morant’s load management is a sign the NBA is ready for a soccer-style season

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The Grizzlies’ approach to Ja Morant’s load management suggests that the NBA’s season structure is harsh on its players. Fortunately, better models already exist.

Photo of Ja Morant on the bench during a game, wearing a tan blazer, resting due to back spasms.

In a game against the Pacers last month, Ja Morant went for a contested layup and fell from the challenge, spilling into a cameraman by the stanchion. He suffered a back injury, then aggravated it two games later against the Utah Jazz. The Grizzlies announced afterward that Morant would be out for some time with back spasms.

The injury came during a rookie season in which the Grizzlies are being proactively careful with their promising point guard. At the beginning of the season, the team said it had built a program to monitor and regulate the number of minutes and games that Morant plays. Essentially, he would undergo dreaded “load management.” His rest would be targeted for stretches when the Grizzlies played many games in a small timespan, like when he rested against the Mavericks in November for the second of four games in six days.

In the face of backlash, Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins was steadfast that the team is doing the right thing:

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Jenkins said before the loss. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

Morant didn’t miss a game in his two years in college. Although he, like most players, wants to play every game, he accepted the program:

“Just rolling with it,” Morant said. “I do have a say-so. But if they feel like it’s best, I’m with it.”

Yet the issue of load management in the NBA has been divisive. Criticism ranges from questions about the toughness of modern players to legitimate worry fans are being shortchanged when they pay for games only to find out a healthy superstar is sitting.

As a soccer fan, watching the load management debate unfold in the NBA has been fascinating. In the world’s biggest game, resting superstars is accepted and encouraged. A big reason why is the difference in culture between the two sports: where the NBA is driven by superstars, soccer is driven by team and league loyalty.

A fan normally gets into soccer by finding a team then experiencing the sport through them. Players can rest and fans will still be invested in the game. The NBA, however, has a peculiar problem in which fans invest themselves in players, so their experience is cheapened if those players sit.

There’s also the problem of the NBA regular season. Teams play 82 games to build up to a postseason that is their primary objective. The season is long and intense. Though seeding is important, teams also want to be in the best shape possible for their playoff runs. And with back-to-backs and stretches like the Grizzlies’ four games in six days, it’s understandable why teams give their best players time off.

Had Kawhi Leonard, for example, not rested frequently last season, he might not have had the same impact in leading the Raptors to their first championship. And though LeBron James is an exception in everything, even he has been shut down.

Conversely, load management is more accepted in soccer in part because teams play for so much more than a single postseason. The Premier League, for example, has 38 games in a season which starts in August and ends in May. In that span, there is also the FA Cup and League Cup, and better teams may also be eligible for either the Champions League or Europa League.

Teams will routinely rest their best players for smaller competitions, like the FA or League Cup, letting reserves and youth products take the reins while knowing they won’t affect the team’s bigger goals. And because league play is spaced out to accommodate these tournaments, good players can often get an entire week of rest. Bear in mind that a soccer team can play up to 60 games a year, which is still fewer games than a regular NBA season that starts later and ends earlier than the European soccer calendar.

The NBA has in fact floated starting a European soccer style cup competition during the season. Many are unsurprisingly wary of such a change, but it could alleviate the league’s twin problems by injecting more intrigue into the regular season and making load management more palatable to fans.

For the tournament to work, the league would have to lengthen the dates of the regular season or reduce the number of games within the current timeframe (or both). A critical reason European soccer works well around so many domestic cups is because the length of the season accommodates them all. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has suggested he’d be open to tailoring the season schedule, too, especially if it’s proven that resting players leaves them healthier for the postseason.

The NBA’s theoretical midseason cup would have a tangible prize for the winner, like an NBA Draft pick, incentivizing teams to take the competition seriously. It would not affect the chase for the big prize of an NBA title, however, giving teams flexibility with their rosters. If, say, the Grizzlies wanted to sit Morant and other starters so reserves and young players could gain experience, they could do so without repercussion.

The league has clearly hit a point where it has to do something about the wear the sport is taking on players’ bodies. Morant is just one signal that the NBA’s medical teams are ready to force the issue now. Science has caught up to the stresses of such a long season and teams are jumping ahead of the curve to keep players healthy from the beginning of their careers, rather than finding ways to mitigate the end.

In his return game for the Grizzlies on Monday, Morant scored 26 points with seven assists against the depleted Warriors to bolster his Rookie of the Year campaign, all while playing his season-average 29 minutes. There are plenty of reasons to begrudge load management, none bigger than the fact we don’t get to see unbelievably talented players like Morant as often as we’d like. But the tradeoff could be longer careers and better basketball, something everyone should want.