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Sixers’ stated load management plan should have fans feeling very nervous

The NBA television companies hate when teams load manage, so how will the Sixers navigate that given the injury risk profile of their stars?

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA — or perhaps more its television partners —have had a problem with “load management” for some time now. The league changed the rules a few years ago hoping to crack down on folks like the great Gregg Popovich, who infamously began resting banged up players amid the tail-end of the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty. The Miami Heat’s stars missed lots of games this season amid a Finals run.

Now this offseason Adam Silver is once again attempting to pander to big money interest discourage it further still.

New rules refresher and implications for key Sixers

For a refresher on some of the newest rules, there’s this:

“Teams must manage their roster to ensure that no more than one star player is unavailable for the same game. Teams must ensure that star players are available for national television and in-season tournament games. Teams must maintain a balance between the number of one-game absences for a star player in home games and road games — with a preference for those absences to happen in home games.”

And there’s also this bit which could, theoretically, (although it’s sounding like he intends to play) apply to James Harden:

“Teams must refrain from any long-term shutdown — or near shutdown — when a star player stops participating in games or plays in a materially reduced role in circumstances affecting the integrity of the game.

Teams must ensure that healthy players resting for a game are present and visible to fans.”

Back in February, Adam Silver acknowledged what most of us instinctively understand, while defending load management, admitting “there is real medical data and scientific data about what’s appropriate,” when asked if players were resting too often.

But by September, upon introducing new rules aimed at increasing profits, Silver said “frankly, the science is inconclusive...we don’t see any statistical data suggesting that players increase their likelihood of getting injured as they go further along in the season.”

Isn’t that the old climate change denier line?

Now you’ve even got a top NBA VP of Ops in Joe Dumars basically claiming there’s some new secret groundbreaking study demonstrating preemptive player rest is a crock!

Silver hasn’t formerly backed this “study” yet, and people much smarter than me are already chomping at the bit to pick apart its “research methods.”

Per The Athletic, some smart NBA insiders are not buying it either:

“It’s just PR,” one NBA coach told The Athletic, who was granted anonymity so that he could speak freely about the meeting with Dumars. “There are plenty of other studies that prove load management makes sense from an injury and recovery standpoint.”

“Like, if we’re all waiting for this to be evidence-based, and for the science to support it, we’ll be doing it 10 years from now,” the former sports science director said.

Burning questions

So how will the Sixers approach this new situation knowing that they have the reigning league MVP who happens to hate to load manage even though (and perhaps partly because) he’s only had one healthy postseason run since he was drafted now heading into his age 29-30 season?

How will they approach James Harden’s potential workload (you can’t win much or trade him for much if he’s hurt) given how much the 34-year-old hates load management despite a long-standing reputation that he “used to run out of gas come playoffs” in Houston and more recently how injury prone he’s been since he turned 30?

Harden visibly injured himself in games but continued to log heavy minutes, (limping around for 30+ minutes) on two separate occasions last season before the predictable MRI’s and missed games. Why nobody on the Sixers last year could see what so many fans spotted and pulled him is still so baffling.

Harden got hurt during the team’s ninth game last year, so they may not want to risk him playing much at all before pulling the trigger on a trade if that’s indeed the plan.

As for Maxey, he’s not a “star” by the new rule standards but he did happen to get injured during a portion of last season when Embiid and Harden were both largely banged up, taking on a much bigger-than-average workload for the diminutive dynamo at that time. It’ll be interesting to monitor his workload if and when they opt to rest the vet stars or they simply get hurt.

And finally, how easy might it be for clever teams to circumvent these new rules by simply listing an achey body part as the reason a key star (say Jimmy Butler) is out? Would the league really call a bluff they cannot even prove isn’t true and fine a team a million bucks?

Anyway, let’s see what the Sixers think

We’ll start with Joel. Recently, Embiid’s skills trainer Drew Hanlen revealed something powerful.

Hanlen revealed that on the night Joel won his MVP last spring, he told coach Hanlen “man, to be honest with ya, I’d give back this MVP just to have a healthy postseason.”

So what’s his approach? Will he be more open to prioritizing rest days moving forward?

Per Embiid back on Media Day:

“I’ll speak for myself: I don’t ever load manage. I want to play every game. If I’m not playing, it probably means that something is not right or that they don’t think something is right. So as far as myself, I always want to play and that’s always the goal. You’ve only got such a short amount of time to take advantage of this and really enjoy. So getting up there at 29 years old, I’ve got about 10 years left. Maybe more, we’ll see — or maybe less. But you want to enjoy it as much as possible. You want to play as many games as possible. My goal is to play and if I’m not on the floor to start a game, that means there’s something wrong.”

Uh oh.

Jo, if you’ve only got this short amount of time to take advantage YOU’RE NOT TAKING ADVANTAGE YET!

But OK fine, maybe you can’t expect an “ace closer” to ever tell his manager he’s ready to come out of the game. Who’s next? Maybe the coach who literally won a title load managing Kawhi Leonard the season the phrase really became popular.

Nick Nurse had this to say said about it last month:

“I think that we are looking at it maybe a little different than people think we might be,” Nurse told Sixers Wire. “We’re trying to get [Embiid] to play more games. Our goal is that it’s going up for him, not the other direction, and some people would say, ‘Oh, that’s playoffs. Is he going to be?’ We’re just trying to get it going the other direction.”

“I think that’s just what our people believe here that he can play and again, knock on wood, cross our fingers, all that stuff,” Nurse continued. “There’s always things that can come up with that stuff, but I don’t know. I believe in the guys playing as much as they can and let’s see what happens.”

Hmmm... that should make fans hellbent on Joel finally getting that healthy postseason run pretty nervous. There was also this one:

Dude, fans who had to witness Joel spend so many postseasons playing with multiple broken eye-sockets, torn thumbs and pinkies, a partially torn meniscus, a sprained LCL probably aren’t worried about his total number of games.

We’re worried about him not being healthy for the playoffs again!

Remember this stuff from 2019?

I’m not certain how the experience with Kawhi will factor in here. But Nurse’s quotes on Joel specifically sound a bit head-scratching.

Next we got a bit of intel about the team’s thinking from Kyle Neubeck.

On one of the inaugural PHLY Sixers pods co-hosted with Derek Bodner. Per Neubeck:

“And — I know in [Embiid’s] case that the Sixers believe in many cases that load management can actually work against him because of how he gets in and out of shape quickly and that playing him as much as possible and keeping him in that groove where he plays a constant 34, 36 minutes a night is actually better than ‘hey, he played 38 tonight and then we’re gonna give him off and then he doesn’t play ’til Saturday....”

I know that they played Joel way too much while banged up back in 2019 and it led to knee tendinitis, and then they overcorrected and when he returned he was out of shape. But let’s not overcorrect the overcorrection. There are happy mediums, folks!

Can an ‘emotional’ player who doesn’t sufficiently calibrate his play to the moment be relied upon to stay healthy?

Embiid may feel he needs to make up for lost time, from those early career foot issues, but that obviously probably hasn’t worked for him in his career.

Nick Nurse once wrote in his book “Embiid is a monumentally gifted player…. But he also plays off emotion, and that’s what I addressed after our [Game 3 loss during the 2019 playoffs].”

I think the description is apt, and still works to some degree, now four years later.

  • I don’t think Embiid’s “emotional” play is unrelated to him swinging a kick toward Nic Claxton’s groin when the Nets tried simply beating Embiid up the night he dove for a block on Cam Johnson and sprained his LCL vs. Brooklyn. Embiid had already been to the locker room once for treatment prior to that play in these past playoffs. Brooklyn got under his skin, and as Ramona Shelburne once penned, “he forgot to fall like a tree.”
  • I don’t think emotion was totally unrelated to Embiid’s 2022 airplane taunt (while up by 27 points with four minutes remaining in a closeout game, a nasty Toronto crowd booing) and his deciding to step in for a needless block on one of the most vicious, elbow happy players in league history, Pascal Siakam, who then broke Joel’s face. You’re getting into it with the crowd and still looking for highlights in that moment!? Blame Doc sure, for leaving him in, call it a freak accident if you like, but Jokic would never, obviously.
  • I’m not sure it’s unrelated when he dove recklessly into the stands in Miami, mask, thumb, and all, appearing to tweak his back during a pivotal Game 5, the same night reporters kept claiming (fair or not) he was moping over not winning MVP.
  • Was he calibrated to the moment back in 2021 when he got injured trying a sprinting poster dunk over the gargantuan, 7-foot, 280-pound Robin Lopez while up 3-0 in a first-round cakewalk series? Beating a dead horse here but it’s probably not something you’d have seen Tim Duncan bother to try in that particular spot.
  • And why does he have to dunk so hard when doing so, often making him have to wince and rotate his shoulder in pain?

So Nurse’s “emotion” comment still factors in here. As do Ramona Shelburne’s and Drew Hanlen’s thoughts on Embiid getting injured trying to prove some type of point, forgetting to fall how he usually does, during a regular season game in Washington back in the winter of 2021.

So... I don’t think the team’s stars can be trusted on this matter yet. And comments from the team’s coach or intel about how the Sixers view this issue from Neubeck, thus far, aren’t signaling the key changes we’d probably need to see made before fans can feel comfy we’ll finally get that signature playoff run.

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