Kings resistant to load management trend because ‘every day matters’ in NBA playoff race

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Perhaps no team throughout this NBA season has been as healthy as the Sacramento Kings.

That is due to good health, yes, but also their unwillingness to participate in the “load management” trend that’s become prominent in the league in recent years.

Sacramento as of Thursday ranked first the NBA with just 51 games missed by players dealing with injuries or health protocols, according to tracking site ManGamesLost.com. The next closest were the New York Knicks at 76. Head coach Mike Brown has credited the team’s performance staff, led by director of athlete health Jas Randawa.

“They’ve been great the entire year. Our guys have, too, because they trust them and go to them and do a lot of maintenance with their bodies,” Brown said. “But our performance guys, they have a lot of input in terms of load management.”

Ask Domantas Sabonis about the idea of load management and he’ll look at you sideways.

“Sitting out for no reason, it just feels weird,” he said. “Even when you’re hurt, it’s a weird feeling being on the bench.”

Sabonis doesn’t take nights off when he doesn’t have to. Sacramento’s All-Star center has missed two games all season, one Dec. 27 after suffering an avulsion fracture to his right non-shooting thumb, and another Jan. 18 when he was under the weather. His thumb injury may eventually require surgery, but he won’t consider it until the season is over.

Instead, he plays through it on a nightly basis, hoping a small wrap and splint will prevent the injury from getting worse. He has a playoff chase to worry about in the meantime.

“We need to win games,” Sabonis said. “We need to put ourselves in the best position for playoffs. If I miss a game and we lose, I’ll never forgive myself.”

However, the Kings’ injury situation could get a little more complicated with starting guard Kevin Huerter dealing with a right popliteus injury suffered in the first quarter of Thursday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets. An MRI on Friday revealed no significant structural damage, but Huerter was ruled out for Saturday’s game against the Washington Wizards.

Load management is a hot topic in the NBA. Team performance staffs are tasked with getting the most out of players over a seven-month regular season, which lasts two months longer for teams that reach the NBA Finals. That means finding the balance between winning games and resting players to make sure they are fresh for the most important moments.

Blowback comes from fans who spend money to see visiting players who might only visit cities once or twice a season. It also doesn’t reflect well on the league when players miss high-profile games on national television broadcasts.

But the Kings haven’t used load management as they sit near the top of the Western Conference standings. They don’t rest players when they’re healthy. The team feels the urgency to reach the playoffs — and having healthy bodies available has given them an edge while many teams in the West have dealt with injuries or rested players regularly.

All five of Sacramento’s regular starters have appeared in at least 65 games. The team’s top bench players — Malik Monk, Davion Mitchell and Trey Lyles — have played at least 62 games.

Elsewhere in the Western Conference, Stephen Curry has played 45 of 71 games for a Golden State Warriors team that was tied for sixth in the West as of Saturday. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard has appeared in 42 of 70 games for the Los Angeles Clippers. Ja Morant, currently serving an eight-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league, has played 53 of 69 games.

Youth is a factor for the Kings, of course. The Kings came into the season as the 16th-youngest team in the NBA with an average age of 25.97 years old. Harrison Barnes, 30, is the only regular rotation player above the age of 27.

Rookie Keegan Murray is 22. Huerter is 24. De’Aaron Fox and Monk are 25. Sabonis is 26.

“I don’t know if our guys are old enough right now to do the load management thing,” Brown said. “Maybe we could do Delly (Matthew Dellavedova), but shoot, Delly don’t play.”

Brown last week withheld Fox from playing against the New Orleans Pelicans after he tweaked a hamstring, though at the time he said Fox could have played it if were a playoff game. Fox missed a Feb. 28 game in Oklahoma City with a sore left wrist and two games during a road trip earlier in the month for the birth of his son, but he hasn’t missed more than two consecutive games all season.

Barnes, despite being the oldest player in the rotation, is the only player who hasn’t missed a game all season.

“We don’t have that luxury here,” he said. “That’s something that organizations discuss when they get to a certain level or they secured a certain playoff spot. We haven’t had any of those discussions here. ... We’ve been fighting for playoff position. We don’t have the luxury of just having guys sit out a game just to rest their body. Every day matters for us. Every stretch is important.”

Sabonis is viewed as a team leader and his willingness to play through his thumb injury is something that resonates with his teammates. The same is true for Murray, who dealt with a painful thumb injury to his non-shooting hand in December without missing any time before it eventually healed.

“I think everyone realizes how important it is to be out there if you’re able to be out there,” Barnes said. “If you look at where we are now, and say, OK, if we rest guys here or there and we drop three or four more games, our season could be totally different. So I think the fact that everyone has made an effort and commitment to try to be out there every single game they possibly can, that’s put us in the position that we’re at, knowing that it’s going to come down to the last week of the season before we really know the way things are going to shake out.”

To Barnes’ point, the Kings share the same 41-27 record as the Memphis Grizzlies, but they own the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the West based on their conference record. Going into Saturday’s game, the Kings were 4 ½ games ahead of the fourth-place Phoenix Suns. Finishing with the No. 2 seed would give the Kings homecourt advantage at Golden 1 Center for the first and second rounds of the playoffs, should the team advance.