Tanking? Load management? How leagues can buck popular trends taking over the NBA and NFL
Kawhi Leonard has missed games left and right due to “load management.” The Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals have been accused of “tanking for Tua [Tagovailoa]” or the new best thing when it comes to dealing with their quarterback woes in the 2020 NFL Draft.
While some may not see any big issues as it relates to those two tactics, others worry about the sanctity of their respective games as they look for the most competitive versions of their leagues that can possibly be provided.
So, what is there to do to deal with these widespread issues? The options are limited, but there are models there on both sides for the NBA and NFL to work with in order to combat the problems and maximize the potential of each season.
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On the NFL’s end, there are only a few real possibilities to look at, and they could learn from their basketball counterparts if they need a quick fix to their tanking woes: a draft lottery.
It’s incredibly tough to go winless through an entire NFL season, and you really have to try to lose 16 games with the amount of talent across any team’s roster.
Sure, you can argue the Bengals have dealt with injury woes when it comes to a star receiver like A.J. Green, but Andy Dalton is a quarterback that has helped them win the AFC North twice, and there’s a ton of potential on both sides of the ball for the team to work with.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins have done everything they can to unload resources and put their team in a tough spot, even trading Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers in their efforts to load up on draft picks for upcoming offseasons.
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Regardless, they still pulled out a win against a divisional rival with a Week 9 win over the Jets, and proved that even the worst teams can put a digit in the win column over the span of 16 games.
A simple solution? Make it tougher for teams to guarantee themselves one of, if not the top pick, in the draft with a lottery.
The NBA has used this philosophy for years, and we’ve seen plenty of instances where the league’s worst team hasn’t been rewarded with the top pick. Even in the most recent installment of the event, the Pelicans came out number one overall in the draft, despite tying for the seventh-worst record in the league in the previous year.
In fact, from 2005 to 2014, the worst team in the previous season didn’t come away with the top pick, and only once did the second-worst team land it in that same timespan.
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But, in four consecutive years from 2015 through 2018, the league’s floor turned into the ceiling by winning the lottery, proving the argument against the system, as well.
On the other end of the spectrum, the lottery almost encourages tanking in some sense, with teams near the brink towards the end of the season able to potentially increase their chances of a higher pick by losing consecutive games to end their year.
To avoid that issue, both the NBA and NFL could implement higher floors when it comes to their respective salary caps, forcing teams to use more of their assets and theoretically upping each roster’s talent levels.
But, that could also just force teams to overpay some players, or waste cap space on lesser players that won’t be used, leaving the problem unsolved.
Speaking of unsolved problems, the NBA has a new one in its hands: load management.
This issue has been around for years at this point, with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs creating headlines back in 2012 for using the tactic when it came to managing minutes for key players like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker during road trips or tough stretches. The real kicker? Popovich put out a junior varsity-level roster for a game against the Miami Heat during the “Big Three” era.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern laid down the hammer as a result, fining the Spurs $250,000, but the team continued to use the move in future seasons with no financial consequences for their actions.
Fittingly enough, former Spurs star and current Clippers cornerstone Kawhi Leonard is the latest star to fall under the “load management” umbrella, generating all sorts of buzz across social media over the last few weeks.
While both the Clippers and NBA back up the notion that Leonard has been hurt, we’ve seen other teams utilize the tactic with their MVP candidates. The Lakers have taken LeBron James out of their lineup numerous times due to “load management,” and Steve Kerr has even taken some flak in the past for resting players during seasons that ultimately ended in championship runs.
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So, if there are so many teams using “load management” to prioritize the postseason over any of their 82 regular season games, what can be done? There are two easy solutions, and both could officially eliminate “load management” as an excuse/option for injury reports:
- The league could implement breaks during the year, potentially starting the season earlier to place week-long breaks at four different points throughout the season, approximately 20 games apart.
- The league could shorten the year by 10 games to make it a 72-game season, or, like Steve Kerr said, take away seven games to make it a 75-game season.
Both options allow for more natural breaks in the action, eliminating any need for “load management” days by spacing out games more appropriately, or giving players the equivalent of four bye weeks to regroup and refresh their batteries.
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However, just like any effort to stop tanking in the NFL, any solution could have its drawbacks. Teams may still decide that 72 or 75 games is too many, and may only want to play a star for 60 of them at that rate. In that case, the league loses out on the revenue from the games they eliminate, and then miss out on further money from stars staying off the court for an equal amount of time as they did in the first place.
In the end, each issue has their own possible solutions, with positives and negatives to each. No matter what the league does, there will always be loopholes for teams to work with, and further reasons for teams to try and give themselves the best chance at a positive future, rather than prioritizing a poor present.
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