Home Athletic Training Understanding the NBA “Load Management” Controversy

Understanding the NBA “Load Management” Controversy

by Gary Vitti

This week on FoxNews.com Michael Jordan discussed “Load Management” in an article headlined,  “Michael Jordan dismissed load management controversy to Hornets players, ex-coach says.

The big buzz words in the NBA today are “load management”. When I broke into the NBA in 1984 the thought of players taking a night off to rest did not exist.  In fact, one year Wilt Chamberlain averaged more than forty-eight minutes a game. He was never subbed out, fouled out or thrown out.  He played every minute of regulation and every minute of overtime for the entire season.

An NBA season is grueling on everyone involved. It’s not a genius theory that injuries should decrease and performance should increase by having players sit out games. A fatigued player is at a higher risk of injury and you can’t get hurt if you’re sitting on the bench. And a rested player should perform better than a fatigued player. There was a time in the NBA that players took pride in playing all 82 games. It was considered as an important variable in the game. That variable is disappearing. It makes you wonder how much better the great superstars of the eighties and nineties could have performed with more rest.

None the less, it looks like load management is here to stay so let’s take a look at how the NBA is determining load.

Technology today can give us an objective evaluation of an athlete’s movement efficiency and objective measurement to manage workload.  Load is a combination of physical stressors and non-physical stressors.  The external stimulus applied to an individual is referred to as external load which can be measured by:







Internal load is the physiological and psychological response to external load combined with non-physical stressors.  Gabbett’s work reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine states that Internal load is measured by a Rated Perception of Exertion (RPE) scale.  The scale ranges from 0=rest to 10=max difficulty.  Combining the RPE with duration of a workout we can monitor the response of the load on an athlete and then create an acute (7 days) to chronic (28 days) workload ratio.






Optimal monitoring of workload requires daily monitoring of internal and external load and monitoring the acute to chronic workload ratio.  Hulin et al report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that the higher the acute workload compared to the chronic workload the greater fatigue factor and the higher risk of injury.  Technology helps us determine where the earlier mentioned sweet spot is because it exists in a place where the acute workload never exceeds the chronic workload.  Foster et al reported in the Wisconsin medical journal that 89% of injuries and illnesses correlated to a spike in strain 10 days prior to the incident.  Gabbett also reported that load increases equal to or greater than 15% from the preceding week increases injury risk by 50%.

This type of technology did not exist in the ’80s and if it did the Lakers would have stood a better chance of threepeating in 1989.  The Lakers swept three playoff rounds going 11 – 0 to get to the finals.  The Detroit Pistons were in a heated 6 game Eastern Conference series with the Bulls to return to a much-anticipated finals rematch.  The Pistons were a physically and mentally tough-minded team that took us to a 7 game finals the prior year.  Pat Riley knew that to threepeat there was going to be a dog fight because the Pistons show no mercy attitude.  Four days off in the NBA is an eternity especially during a playoff run.  No matter what a coach does in practice he can never reproduce the speed, power, and intensity of a real game.  It’s hard to get the edge and even harder to keep the edge.  We finished off the Phoenix Suns in a four-game sweep on May 28th to win the Western Conference and were not able to play the first game of the championship round until June 6th, an 8-day layoff.

Riley decided to have an intense NBA playoff-type boot camp in Santa Barbara complete with training camp type conditioning and scrimmages.  On June 5th our starting two-guard Byron Scott during a live box out drill landed awkwardly and ruptured his hamstring.  Three days later on June 8th during the second quarter of game two Magic Johnson also suffered a severe hamstring strain.  Within four days we lost our starting backcourt for the finals.  After going 11 – 0 to get to the finals we were wounded animals and swept by the Detroit Pistons.  We will never know if a healthy Lakers team could have pulled off the three-peat in 1989 but for sure it would have been a more even series.  Coach Riley did what he thought was right.  In those days the mentality was to break through the wall both mentally and physically.

Current longitudinal research tells us that breaking through the wall may not be the best approach.  Today’s technology gives us an objective view of postural distortion patterns that are difficult to see with even a trained naked eye.  Through myofascial release and stretching of tight muscles and activation of weak muscles, we can get athletes out of their postural distortion patterns.  These patterns have been developed from previous injury, repetitive movement, poor training habit or a congenital anomaly.  The problem begins when the athlete fatigues and goes back into their default posture.  This leads to poor movement efficiency resulting in decreased performance and increased risk of injury.  If we had today’s technology in 1989 it could have helped identify poor movement efficiency and monitor the load to prevent fatigue injuries and build on the endurance factor.  We always hear the term core strength.  We should use the term core endurance.  The ability to keep your center of gravity as the athlete moves through space in an uncontrolled environment.  When core stability is lost through fatigue, movement efficiency is lost and injury risk increases.  The idea today is to not break through the wall but to move the wall with good training and monitoring.

In my final years with the Lakers, I had the fortunate circumstance of meeting Dr. Chris Powers from the University of Southern California.  Dr. Powers is a trained physical therapist and an associate professor in the Division of Biokinesiology.  He operates a lab that utilizes the Simi Aktysis system.  Through algorithm development and colored LED markers the system can provide meaningful movement analysis in real-time on video recordings. Powers helped me on more than one occasion to identify athletic biomechanical deficiencies and help correct them.  Without powers input, I’m convinced that the athlete would have re-injured himself and possibly endangered his career.

I also invested in the DorsaVi ViPerform wireless sensor technology.  The DorsaVi system was designed for athletes to assess injury risk, guide training programs and determine return to play.  The system consists of wearable motion and muscle activity sensors that record data at 200 frames per second.   My plan was to assess all players for a baseline in the offseason and prior to training camp.  The technology could also be used to monitor load through the season.  It could easily be done by putting sensors on one big and one small every practice day.

To know what information is pertinent you must understand your sport and the demands needed to compete at that level and technology has helped us understand the demands of NBA basketball.  Every arena in the NBA is equipped with the Second Spectrum high speed 6 camera system that shoots 25 frames per second.  The system recognizes all 13 participants on the playing court, 5 players on each team and 3 officials.  This technology gives us the number of accelerations and decelerations and the trajectory of each throughout the game.  We can then extrapolate the average speed of each player and the distance they ran.  An equation can then be created to determine load and intensity.



What we were looking for was a direct linear relationship between load and intensity.  If load went up we wanted to see intensity to go up with it.  If it did we slotted that individual into a green zone, meaning push training.  If intensity began to flatten then we slotted that individual into a yellow zone, meaning he is on our radar for decreased performance and increased risk of injury which leads us to look closer at the external and internal loads.  Obviously, if intensity is crashing, we are probably at a very low-performance state and high injury risk which would require shutting the player down until corrections can be made to meet the needs of the sport.

Arena Technology can objectively measure the demands of an NBA basketball game.  Some of these variables include but are not limited to:


50ft x 94ft


An NBA player runs for about 2 to 4 minutes at a time at an average speed of 3 – 4 MPH but can get up to speeds as high as 14 MPH and as low as barely moving


An NBA player runs approximately 2.5 miles during the course of a game


There are generally 10 – 20 full court transitions throughout a game

The use of NBA game analytics acquired from using high-speed camera technology coupled with wearable sensor technology for practices can help teams reduce the risk of fatigue injuries as we saw in 1989.  The technology is like having another tool in the athletic trainer’s toolbox.  I think technology should be looked at in three dimensions:

  1. Reinforces something you already know
  2. Helps sway you towards a decision that you were on the fence about
  3. Alerts you to something you never saw coming

What analytics does not do is measure what’s in the heart of a champion.  Most people are average which is the same as saying you are as close to being at the bottom as you are the top.  When I would underperform I always looked at who I did better than.  My father asked me why I compared myself to them.  Why not compare yourself to those at the top and he was right.  In the words of the famous Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilder:  Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.




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Anthony Kjenstad November 12, 2019 - 6:47 pm

Great article Gary! These type of perspectives help guys like myself understand how my product can be viewed from a player, trainer s
Perspective. You might want to get a LinkedIn account going to promote your blog.

John Moe December 28, 2019 - 4:40 pm

Gary, I thank you for continuing to be willing to share your unique insights and for sharing complex issues with clarity. You were always the player’s best advocate, even when their competitive juices got in the way of their best interests. This article helps explain the science that drives decisions to limit participation. It will not prevent disappointment for the fan or broadcast executive who was counting on seeing a super star in a given game. It may help them feel a bit better that when a player is held out it is with the goal of allowing them to remain healthy and to preserve, as much as possible, their ability to perform at their highest level when championships are on the line. Thanks again for continuing to be an educator.


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