Evanson: Hurt is hurt, but load management isn't...and I'm tired of it
Damian Lillard is hurt. The Portland Trail Blazers star point guard is nursing a hamstring injury and hasn't played in the team's past three games.
That's news primarily because the 30-year-old veteran simply doesn't sit out. Over his first seven years in the league, he has missed a total of 25 games, and over his 9-year career, he's played in 95% of his potential 704 regular-season contests.
Yet, it's also news not because of how often he takes the court, but rather how often many of his superstar brethren don't.
Load management became a thing a couple of seasons ago when then-Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard implemented a program that purposefully kept him out of 22 of the team's 82 regular season games. Coincidentally — or not — Leonard and the Raptors went on to win the NBA Championship that year, and since then the two-time NBA champ and countless other league all-stars have deliberately chosen the bench systematically not due to injury, but rather in the interest of preventing it.
I'm not a fan. After all, those who follow the league either in the arena or on their couch at home pay to watch these players on the floor in uniform, not sit idle on the bench in casual attire. They want Kawhi, not Luke Kennard. They want Kyrie Irving, not Landry Shamet. And they want LeBron James, not Alex Caruso. But that's what they're getting when players of their superstar ilk feel it necessary to take a night off, opposed to that same necessity to give the fans what they pay handsomely for.
To his credit, LeBron is not that guy. He plays games and has done so at a somewhat remarkable clip throughout his 17-year NBA career.
The self-professed "King" has played in 1,306 of his potential 1,442 games, participating at a 91% clip. He rarely gets hurt, and aside from a two-week stretch with Cleveland during the 2014-15 season in which he spent two weeks in Miami to "get right," he plays and isn't afraid to tell you so.
"If I'm hurt, I don't play. If not, I'm playing," James told ESPN in 2019. "That's what has always been my motto."
The same can't be said for others.
Leonard has played in 79% of the Clippers' games this season, which is about par for the course for him over the past three years. Memphis rookie Ja Morant and Dallas star Kristaps Porzingis did similarly last season, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Los Angeles Lakers big man Anthony Davis have notably done it, and plenty of players coming off of injury have done so, some on their own accord, others as part of a program set up by their team's physicians.
And in that regard, it's fine. Rehabbing is a process of getting healthy, while load management is simply sitting in lieu of good health.
There's a difference.
Then there's Brooklyn Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving, who's taken preventative maintenance to an even higher level, taking days and weeks off for "mental health" or, in some cases, without explanation — even to his employer.
This past January, he missed seven games over a two-week period for what he said was a necessary "pause," and last week, he stepped away for "personal reasons," only to return a game later without any apparent explanation.
Listen, I'm hip to the seriousness of mental illness and am sympathetic to a point, but part of life is working through issues on the fly, and I think I speak for most of us when I say you, I and everyone else not making millions of dollars do it on a regular basis. I know many roll their eyes when people like myself try to compare professional athletes' situations to that of commoners like myself, often citing that the two are apples and oranges. But maybe that's the part of the problem? If you give someone a crutch, they're going to use it, and I think a fair share of NBA players are doing just that.
They know that limited minutes equates to more years in the league, and more years in the league equates to more money in their pockets. And that's great for them, but more for them in this case equals less for you — and that doesn't seem so great for us.
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