Why the NBA's load management problem might be unfixable

On Jan. 20, the dynastic Warriors played the upstart Cavaliers. Except the foundation players of that dynasty -- Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green -- didn't play, raising the load-management debate, once again, to a boil. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

IT'S JAN. 20, and the Golden State Warriors are making their only visit of the season to Cleveland to face the suddenly formidable Cavaliers. But their biggest stars are all on the bench, sidelined in no small part because of what transpired the night before.

Less than 24 hours prior in Boston, the Warriors fell in a thrilling overtime loss against the Celtics, a rematch of the 2022 Finals. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all logged heavy minutes -- Thompson with 36, Green 37, Curry 43. After the game, the Warriors flew to Cleveland -- landing after 2 a.m. and hitting the pillows around 3 a.m. -- to close out a back-to-back set and the last of a five-game road trip.

In an effort to save the Warriors' dynamic but aging trio, Golden State coach Steve Kerr decides to give his future Hall of Famers a night off. It's not an easy decision, and, before facing the Cavaliers, Kerr laments the circumstances.

"I feel terrible for fans who buy tickets expecting to see someone play and they don't get to see that person play," Kerr tells reporters before the game.

"It's a brutal part of the business."

The short-handed Warriors eke out a win against the Cavaliers, but the team's absences steal the headlines, elevating the league's "load management" debate once again.

"We have so much more data," Kerr said before the game, "so much more awareness of players' vulnerability. It's proven that if guys are banged up, back-to-backs, players are much more likely to get injured and miss more games. So that's why you're seeing it leaguewide. Everybody is being cautious when a guy is banged up. You're just playing the long game."

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, president of the National Basketball Players Association, said he's sensitive to the league's concerns about the impact of load management, which league sources said became a "major point" of emphasis during collective bargaining agreement talks between the NBA and the NBPA last month.

"You understand the effects that this is having on our business," McCollum told ESPN. "Obviously, we're looking forward to figuring out ways to continue to keep our players healthy and safe. But we do know that this is an issue. We're not blind to that. It's something that is affecting our game and having a negative impact on our game."

Said Joe Dumars, the NBA's executive vice president and head of basketball operations: "It's a very important issue to the NBA, a very important issue. We understand that fans and media and people want to see the best players in the world play. And so it's an issue that's got everybody's hands on deck to try to figure this out."

How exactly, though, remains to be seen, said Dr. John DiFiori, the NBA's director of sports medicine.

"There's been a lot of things -- hundreds and hundreds of papers published in the last five years -- but it's very difficult to try to distill that down into a model that can be implemented within a team that will actually be successful," DiFiori told ESPN. "It's not for lack of trying."

Many team officials still advocate for a reduction in the NBA's 82-game regular-season schedule, but they also acknowledge the likely drop in revenue for all 30 teams makes doing so a nonstarter.

"I'll never say never," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said during the recent All-Star Weekend about reducing the schedule.

But in interviews with top league officials, GMs and front-office executives, agents, team medical officials and other medical personnel who work with teams and players, none could provide a viable resolution to the NBA's ongoing load-management issue. And many point to a range of factors -- issues that, they said, make the problem unfixable.

The question is why.