Welcome to the NBA dog days, where 16 or so front offices try to MacGyver up a winning roster with nothing but a paperclip, three staples, and $1.75 worth of quarters. The other half of the league consists of those who have a better shot at winning the draft lottery than making a legitimate playoff run, and are moreso concerned with retaining their star players than acquiring new ones.
The Washington Wizards clearly belong to the latter group, and while leading man John Wall deals with countless injuries and locker room drama, the Wizards have focused on renewing blossoming superstar Bradley Beal’s expiring contract. Without Wall, coach Scott Brooks has had to increasingly lean on Beal to lead the team… or so we thought.
In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, Brooks admitted that he had tried to relegate Beal to a bench role late in the 2018-2019 season for “rest purposes” – a request that Beal refused.
“I mean, we were going nowhere at the end of the season pretty fast. And I’m like, ‘Brad, you know what, I appreciate everything you’ve given me the last couple of years. And this year we’re not making the playoffs, we’re out. You want to like chill out the last couple of weeks and rest? And he said, ‘You know what, I signed up to be the leader of this team and do it every night.’ And he wanted to do that, and he wanted to play every game and that’s why he played for two years in a row already too.”
This has become known as “load management” – the act of a team deliberately shelving their best players as an act of preservation for the postseason or to avoid injury – it’s the NBA’s latest trend, and marquee names such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid are no stranger to the concept. You won’t find Bradley Beal anywhere close to this list, however, as he not only led the NBA in total minutes last year, but also played in all 82 games for two straight seasons. All of this for a team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs two seasons ago and finished just 11th in the Eastern Conference this past season. That’s textbook hardo stuff right there – and I love it.
Don’t try to spin this as me knocking Beal, there’s something genuinely admirable about the old-school work ethic that has fallen out of favor in modern sports.
The NBA has lost that toughness which defined the 80’s and 90’s; the physicality of the Bad Boy Pistons and intensity of Michael Jordan have been replaced by the hand-check rule and excessive flopping. I’m sure you’ve heard the old-heads rambling about how great the game used to be back in the good old days – frankly I’m as sick of it as you are – but they have a point. Kobe Bryant partly touched on this back in 2014, when he called the modern league “more of a finesse game…which, personally, I don’t care very much for. Makes me nauseous. You can’t touch a guy.” And while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with small-ball, the general attitude which has accompanied it is somewhat off-putting as a fan.
Fans like to watch players who leave it all on the court, who aren’t afraid to throw a tasteful elbow here or there. There’s a reason we prefer Blake Griffin to Andre Drummond here in Detroit; while Blake seems willing to fight tooth-and-nail every time he’s on the court, Drummond seems rather uninterested in suiting up.
While It’s unreasonable to expect players to play every night over the grueling 82-game season, there’s something especially reprehensible about a player choosing to sit when they’re physically able, especially when they’re reaping the benefits of a max contract. Unfortunately, while I don’t love load management, I’m not quite sure there is a solution.
The league can’t force players to play, as the NBA is a player-driven league, and risking injury could potentially force players out for an even longer period. However, it does seem a bit unfair to fans who can’t be sure what product they’re receiving down the stretch. Perhaps the NBA schedule needs as much of a makeover as the MLB’s, or perhaps teams need to be a bit more transparent about how they plan on managing minutes…
Or maybe the NBA needs more players like Bradley Beal; those whose character and work ethic transcend themselves, those who recognize that fans deserve to see the players they look up to, and those who earn every penny of their contracts on the court.