Near the end of the 2018-19 season, as the Washington Wizards’ playoff hopes faded but Bradley Beal’s minutes remained among the highest averages in the NBA, the team attempted to lighten his load away from games. Beal was held out of shoot-arounds on the mornings of games and, if the team conducted a rare practice, Beal did not participate in contact drills.
Although the Wizards have gone to great lengths in the past to protect Beal, a two-time all-star who has not missed a game in two seasons, their focus on sports science following the hires of Daniel Medina and Mark Simpson and the creation of the Monumental Basketball Athlete Care and Performance department should intensify the effort to monitor players’ heavy loads.
“I think we did a good job in the past. I just think there are opportunities to add to that, and certainly that’s what Danny’s expertise and Mark’s expertise will blend very well,” General Manager Tommy Sheppard said. “It’s really trying to individualize a lot more.”
While it is too early to formulate a plan for players’ minutes, Sheppard has indicated how the team wants to revise the way it approaches practices.
“As we learn to work smarter and we learn to add the layers of technology that we have access to, that will blend very well for us,” Sheppard said. “We’ll have a practice plan, and within that practice plan almost individualize it to every single player.”
Beal, who led the NBA with a career-high 36.9 minutes per game, excelled while carrying a greater burden as the Wizards’ No. 1 option. He became the first player in franchise history to post season averages of at least 25 points, five assists and five rebounds, and he showed no signs of fatigue down the stretch. Even so, Beal has logged 6,005 minutes over the past two years. Those numbers will be considered by the Wizards during the 2019-20 season.
“The fact that he was able to perform at the level that he did I think proves that [he was healthy]. Now, can we bring his minutes down? Sure. But is it the right thing to do? Is that the best thing for Bradley? Is it the best thing for the Wizards?” Sheppard said. “What I think is exciting about the staff we have assembled and the people that we’re blending in, that’s for everybody, the collective, to come up with. That’s where we are right now. We haven’t made any conclusions yet.”
Medina echoed Sheppard’s proclamation on Beal’s health and that the team has no plans to push him if the minutes become too much.
“He played 82 games and it’s going to sound funny, but he did it because he was able to do it,” Medina said. “At some point, if he’s not coping well, we’re not going to push any player to go beyond any limit.”
While watching some of his biggest talents experience season-disrupting injuries last year (John Wall, Dwight Howard and Washington Mystics all-star Elena Delle Donne) Ted Leonsis, the chairman and chief executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, grew fascinated with the health and maintenance of European soccer players who play 90-minute matches. It’s no surprise that in July, Leonsis named Medina, who has a background in soccer, as the chief of athlete care and performance for Monumental Basketball.
Medina views “load management,” which has become a popular term in the NBA, as another way to describe a player’s training regimen. A load can include the work a player does with a strength and conditioning coach and even travel to road games. Medina does not equate managing a load to limiting minutes with the intention of preventing injuries.
“It’s really complex. It’s not only a matter of just finding a magic formula that you can play 24.5 minutes,” Medina said of load management. “That doesn’t work that way. I think the most challenging part is making the players part of the decision, making them aware of the importance of the recovery process but also the quality and the quantity of training.”
The 2019-20 schedule should afford the Wizards plenty of opportunities for rest and recovery. Although the team has 13 sets of back-to-back games, with four coming in a grueling March, there will also be five stretches of the season in which the Wizards will have three or more days between games. Washington’s home opener Oct. 30 comes one week after its season debut because the team will get three days off following its three-city road trip to start the year.
Still, 82 games can be a marathon, and the Wizards expect to find ways to ease their players’ loads.
“The schedule is just part of it,” Sheppard said. “It’s a bigger picture than just schedule. It’s the practices and the amount of work done in practices, giving a lot more emphasis on recovery and the ability to have active recovery.”