“Availability is the best ability,” the saying goes. It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you can’t stay on the court.
Making decisions to preserve players’ wellbeing is at the forefront of NBA teams’ goals – especially in Boston, where many important contributors have lengthy medical reports. The league made that history just a bit more of a factor in a rule change this week.
The policy passed by the NBA Board of Governors on Wednesday will penalize teams for resting a “star” player for a nationally televised game or at the same time as another star.
It’s aimed at load management – the practice of resting star players periodically to prevent injury – which has become a polarizing concept among NBA officials, teams, and fans. Teams want to have the flexibility to rest the legs of their best players, especially if those players are older or injury-prone. After all, some franchises (including the Celtics) depend heavily on a single player. If Jayson Tatum goes down, Boston’s chances at Banner 18 take a skydive.
On the flip side, sitting star players makes for a diminished fan experience. I love Payton Pritchard as much as the next guy, but if he and Sam Hauser are set to soak up the most minutes in a game, not many fans who shelled out a lot to see it are going to be pleased.
Such a game actually happened last year during the last regular season game at TD Garden. Derrick White was the only key rotation player to suit up, completing his season of perfect attendance. With Brown and Tatum both riding the pine, the Celtics could have been fined under the new rule (depending on the severity of Brown’s hand injury).
That was the only game that would have counted as a violation last year; only players who have made All-Star or All-NBA teams in the past three seasons count as “star” players under the new rule. Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford don’t qualify because it’s been five years since they received such accolades.
Accordingly, the rule change won’t have a massive effect on the Celtics’ season. Porzingis, Horford, and Robert Williams III are the most likely to be load-managed, and they’re safe. Tatum is historically against taking time off for rest purposes, and Brown doesn’t miss much time either.
Far more pressing an issue for the Celtics is what load management is meant to alleviate: injuries. Among Boston’s top seven rotation players, at least four are at risk to miss significant time due to injury. Here’s what could be in store for Boston’s training and medical staff.
Jayson Tatum | Age: 25 | Games played (last three seasons): 74, 76, 64
Over his six NBA seasons, the Celtics’ superstar has missed just 36 games – almost unheard of for a player of his caliber. Stars who play both ends of the court at elite levels for 35 minutes a game are going to get injured. Tatum has avoided anything serious, and Celtics fans are lucky for that. (Knock on every bit of wood you can find. Now.)
Of course, he has suffered smaller injuries at key points in the postseason. In the Miami series a few months ago, Tatum sprained his ankle on the first play of Game 7 and didn’t put his mark on the season-ending loss. In the 2022 playoffs, Tatum was battling a wrist injury that persisted into the 2022-23 season. Surgery was a possibility for him this summer, but he has stayed quiet on the matter since January. If he doesn’t get surgery, he might miss a game or two to deal with the wrist.
And while he would probably benefit from it, Tatum will not be load-managing anytime soon: He made it clear at a camp this summer that resting against a lesser opponent is “not what the best players do.”
If history is any guide, Tatum should be just fine.
(Trigger warning: if you want to feel great about Boston’s injury situation, stop reading now.)
Jaylen Brown | Age: 26 | Games played (last three seasons): 67, 66, 58
Brown is also a pretty durable star player, all things considered. He’s had a bunch of little injuries pop up here and there (a facial fracture, that plant-watering incident, etc.) but he hasn’t missed significant regular season time due to a recurring injury.
He has, like Tatum, struggled in the playoffs, though. A wrist injury prevented him from competing in the 2021 postseason, leading to a 4-1 loss to the Nets in the first round – Brooklyn’s lone playoff series win while Kevin Durant was in town. Brown had a problem with the same wrist (left) this past postseason in addition to a couple of other minor injuries.
With Porzingis coming in to shoulder some scoring responsibility, though, Brown can take a night off once in a while. And he absolutely should. Saving his body and having him feel good going into the playoffs should be a top priority. He just can’t do it at the same time as Tatum, per the new rules (and that probably wouldn’t happen anyway given the lack of forward depth behind the duo).
Kristaps Porzingis | Age: 29 | Games played (last three seasons): 65, 51, 43
Porzingis may not be the most injury-prone player on the Celtics, but he is certainly the player whose persistent injuries are most likely to affect Boston’s chances this season.
Start with the most recent injury: Porzingis was kept from participating in the FIBA World Cup this summer because of plantar fasciitis. It’s a condition a lot of players suffer through, and it’s treatable. One of the key ways to deal with it though is rest. He is completing a rehab program and is said to be on track to start camp healthy. But it’s a good guess that he will sit every few games at the beginning of the season to get comfortable.
Scarier is Porzingis’s ACL history. He missed the entire 2018-19 season rehabbing from an ACL tear and surgery. The ligament was repaired and Porzingis hasn’t lost a step, but those sorts of injuries can come back to haunt big men.
The good news: Porzingis played more games last season than he has since his second year in the league, his All-Star season. If he can match last year’s 65 games played, he’ll be a huge win for the Celtics.
Derrick White | Age: 29 | Games played (last three seasons): 82, 75, 36
White wasn’t always the iron man he has proven to be in Boston. Just three seasons ago he played only 36 games for San Antonio due to a slew of injuries that began with a knee problem. After he returned, he promptly fractured his left toe. Rounding out a turbulent season, he sprained his ankle and missed additional time.
Since then, though, he has missed just seven games over two seasons. He’s become an efficient and consistent presence who showed enough to the front office to feel comfortable placing him in the starting lineup and trading Marcus Smart. The Celtics need him to be healthy, especially if another starter has to sit. Remember when he averaged 25 points per game when Brown was hurt last season? I do.
White is the guy who has to step up when a star has to sit this season. Not only should he be durable, he should be part of what makes the Celtics perform if others are not.
Robert Williams III | Age: 25 | Games played (last three seasons): 35, 61, 52
Mark my words: This will be the season of Robert Williams. He has said publicly that he plans to take more of an active role in the offense. His numbers over the past two seasons should make him a shoo-in for the All-Defensive team. He will finally reclaim his starting spot after losing it last season. Mix in a full, healthy training camp, some extra Porzingis size on the court and double-big lineup magic conjured up by former Bucks assistant Charles Lee who’s now in green, and Williams will lead the Celtics to the far and away best defense in the league.
That’s if he plays. And that is a BIG if.
Williams is healthy right now. His body is in good shape to hit the ground running through training camp and into the season. He hasn’t always had that luxury, though; he missed the first half of last season because of a meniscus tear. That injury hung over Williams after his return, and he wasn’t the same in the playoffs.
Williams needs his health to be as great as we know he can be. Hopefully, with the addition of Porzingis, Boston will feel more comfortable getting Williams rest throughout the season to prevent missing significant time due to injury.
Malcolm Brogdon | Age: 30 | Games played (last three seasons): 67, 36, 56
Malcolm Brogdon was supposed to go to the Clippers in the Kristaps Porzingis trade this summer, but an injury sustained during the playoffs prevented the deal from going through. So, how bad is it?
There’s good news and bad news. The good: Brogdon is on schedule to start training camp, even if he gets surgery on his forearm. The bad: he might need surgery on his forearm. In other news, he might already have gotten surgery on his forearm. The team hasn’t said. But if you believe Brad Stevens, Brogdon will be ready to play on Opening Night.
After that, we’ll see. Brogdon suited up for more games last season than he had since he was rookie of the year in 2017. He missed a significant portion of the 2021-22 season with a hamstring injury and hadn’t played very many games for the Pacers in the two years before that.
Barring any bad news, though, we should be excited for Brogdon’s recovery. And the Celtics need his production off the bench. Don’t be surprised, though, if last season’s game total ends up being the exception that proves the rule for the Sixth Man of the Year.
Al Horford | Age: 37 | Games played (last three seasons): 63, 69, 28
Horford, despite entering his age-37 season, is still a pretty darn durable guy. His 63 games played last season don’t necessarily make that clear, but remember: he had programmed rest every single back-to-back. That’s 13 games missed not to injury, but for pre-planned load management. That leaves just six injury absences on the season, fewer than anyone else on this list not named Derrick.
Those of you worried about the 28 games he played two seasons ago are clearly not history buffs. Remember that Horford was in Oklahoma City for that season after Philadelphia dumped his deal. Oklahoma shut him down after a short stint and Horford got to rest for the remainder of the season. If anything, that season helped him to enjoy a second coming here in Boston, where he has sat just a few games here and there (for back pain and a concussion).
We’ll see how long it lasts. Horford takes care of his body better than almost anyone in the league. But age will do things to a player, and one injury could derail the remainder of his career. It’s just harder for older big men to get over injuries.
Boston’s big man rotation will be interesting to watch. Horford, Williams, and Porzingis will all have rest days, and will all get injured. How the Celtics get the most out of those three players – while keeping them healthy for the playoffs – will be one of the most challenging needles to thread.