Load management: Sound strategy or ‘crapshoot’ for Sixers’ championship hopes?

Listen 4:24
7 feet 2 inch- basketball star, Joel Embiid, number 21, in Sixers uniform, arms spread wide, looking up

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Last month, the Philadelphia 76ers played an away game against the Orlando Magic. If you watched it, you probably noticed pretty quickly that star center Joel Embiid never stepped onto the court. If you watched the whole thing, you saw the Sixers lose — handily — to a team with a losing record.

Embiid wasn’t injured that night. The Sixers were resting him as part of a regular season strategy for keeping the big man healthy for the playoffs. A strategy Embiid would later call B.S.

“I want to play every game. I want to be on the court building chemistry with my teammates,” Embiid told reporters.

It’s called load management. The strategy has been a part of the NBA for about a decade, but recently has become more prevalent — and controversial — as more teams are sitting their superstars. The players that drive the NBA. The guys fans pay to watch compete in person.

The Lakers’ LeBron James, the Warriors’ Steph Curry, and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard have also rested regular season games, sparking the heated debate now swirling around the NBA.

Some Sixers fans have mixed feelings about whether the yet-to-be-proven strategy will pan out for the team, which last won a championship in 1983.

Broomall resident Mickey Gallagher, a fan for the last five years, doubts load management will prevent injury.

“It always a crapshoot,” said Gallagher before a recent home game against the Knicks. “A hundred percent.”

To season-ticket holder Adolphus Bey, giving players time off so they can stay strong makes sense. He also thinks load management could very well help the Sixers win the team’s first title in more than three decades. His problem is that casual fans may feel cheated if they show up to the Wells Fargo Center and find their favorite player wearing a tailored suit on the sideline instead of a mesh jersey and shorts.

Valerie Hosendorf and Adolphus Bey attend a Friday evening 76ers game at the Wells Fargo Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“They should do [their load management] when they’re on the road. When they’re home, they should treat their fans to seeing all their players,” said Bey, wearing a matching blue Sixers hat and jacket.

At 69, part of the West Oak Lane resident also struggles with the idea that men in peak physical condition are sitting out several games a season. He’s watched plenty of players — greats like Allen Iverson and Julius Erving — compete and win without doing that.

“Don’t get me started,” said Bey, chuckling. “I wanna to keep it clean.”

Load management is used to try to preserve two leg tendons that can get a lot of wear and tear during an 82-game regular season. The Achilles tendon, the tough band of tissue that connects your calf muscles to your heels, and the patellar tendon, which runs from your knee caps to the top of your shin bones.

Both body parts are critical for jumping.

“When a person goes down and they will jump for a rebound, that’s an exposure. That’s a landing. Then they’ll dribble up the court and do a jumpshot, that’s another exposure. It’s not just moving on the court, but it’s that explosion. And they do it frequently. Much more frequently than other sports,” said Dr. Thomas Trojian, who leads the sports medicine program at Drexel University.

The Sixers rest Embiid most when his squad has two games in two nights. He’ll typically sit out one of them. The team says it does that so the franchise has the best possible team on the floor when the postseason rolls around, which ⁠— after a number of miserable seasons ⁠— is now the source of some real hope.

Former Sixers guard Aaron McKie, now the men’s basketball coach at Temple University, said he doesn’t think load management spells weakness or that it’s made the game more gentle. The concept just doesn’t gel with the mindset he had as a pro, or his role on the team, which reached the NBA Finals in 2001.

Aaron McKie is the head men’s basketball coach at Temple University and a former NBA player. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

McKie started sometimes, but played most of his career off the bench, meaning how much time he got on the court partially hinged on how well he played game-to-game.

“I was one of those players that didn’t have the luxury of being able to take days off and nights off in terms of games,” said McKie.

Would he have liked to? McKie said it wouldn’t have even crossed his mind. “I was a worker. I felt uncomfortable with taking days off of practice and games.”

It’s unclear whether load management will be a slam dunk or a flop for the Sixers ⁠— or the NBA. Experts say it’s simply too early to tell if, for example, ticket sales will take a hit.

The only thing that’s for sure: load management has a built-in tradeoff.

“There’s a gain and there’s a loss,” said Adi Wyner, faculty director of the Wharton Sports Analytics and Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The gain is more likelihood of winning a championship, making progress in the playoffs. The loss is benching your stars and upsetting fans that come on a regular basis, turning the regular season into a farce.”

That’s likely something nobody wants.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal