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On Nate McMillan’s evolving relationship with load management

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And why he still may need to take it a step further.

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

During the live-streamed portion of Media Day, Nate McMillan walked up on an in-progress conversation and weighed-in with an unexpected answer.

“We’re talking about load management,” play-by-play announcer Mark Boyle said, seguing into the next segment with McMillan. “Are you a fan?”

“I’m becoming one,” said McMillan, who later went on to detail some of the ways in which the Pacers have adapted to rest prioritization strategies.

“We track our players in practice, we track them in games, and we know where they should be to give maximum performance,” he explained.

While it was unclear during the interview if McMillan’s newfound fandom of load management will extend to DNP-rest at some point in the future, the value he places on minutes reduction has been evident over the last two seasons, which isn’t exactly a concept he grew up on in the league.

“When I played we went two-a-day practices the entire month of October, and now you can only have six of those a season,” he said. “There is a time limit on the amount of hours that you can go live, when you’re having two practices a day. You can’t go live both practices.”

In McMillan’s final season as a player (1997-98), 84 players averaged over 32 minutes per game, and guys like Michael Finley, Grant Hill, Glen Rice, and Ray Allen were extended to the point of logging over 40 all while playing in no fewer than 81 games a piece, albeit at a much slower pace. Now, fast-forward to his third season as head coach for Indiana, and that number has been slashed by nearly half, with only 48 players reaching the 32-minute per game threshold — and not a one of them played for the Pacers.

In fact, in spite of McMillan’s recurrent quirk for waiting too long to pull his starters in blowouts, Indiana was one of only three teams in the league last season without a 32-minute per game player (the other two being the Hawks and Nets), and that was with their number of double-digit losses rising only slightly from 11 to 12 when compared year-over-year. Granted, their number of wins by 20 or more points jumped from seven to 12, but only three of those lopsided victories came in the wake of Oladipo’s injury and McMillan still kept all of his guys under 32 minutes for the final 34 games of the season even without his star player.

The only problem was those were hard minutes, and while Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, and Cory Joseph didn’t rank among the top 48 in minutes per game, Bogdanovic and Young both cracked the top-40 in total minutes, with the former taking on increased usage from Oladipo and the latter acting as the team’s workhorse.

The signs of wear and tear were loud and clear, too. At the point in which the team returned home from a dreadful 0-4 west coast road trip in mid-March, Bogdanovic, Young, and Joseph had played in 73 of 73 games and each of them had been exhibiting symptoms of fatigue. Bogdanovic shot 14 percent from three, Young went 1-for-8 from the floor against the Trail Blazers, and Joseph finished the trip with more turnovers (4) than made field goals (3). Meanwhile, the team as a whole coughed up 23 turnovers against the Clippers and repeatedly found themselves laboring to finish stops with defensive rebounds.

If the Pacers had resigned themselves right then and there in the aftermath of that third-consecutive loss to circle the final game of that road trip versus the Warriors for rest, the players which they opted to sit would’ve been set up to play a stretch of just one game over the next seven days.

Instead, they let it ride in pursuit of home-court advantage, and the Celtics ended up wrestling away the fourth-seed anyway. Then, when the playoffs rolled around, they posted the worst offensive rating of any team in the first-round and Bogdanovic shot 39.7 percent overall and 31.8 percent from three. To be fair, a lot of that had to do with Bogdanovic revealing himself to be miscast as a primary option in a post-season environment, but tired legs likely didn’t help his cause of dealing with increased defensive attention.

If repeated, that strategy has the potential to be dicey once again this season. With Oladipo expected to be out until December or January, various players are going to have to step up in his absence and some of those players have checkered injury histories. Malcolm Brogdon missed the final 13 games of last season with a plantar fascia tear and didn’t return until the second-round of the playoffs, and T.J. Warren failed to reach 50 games played for the third time in five seasons.

Not to mention that the productivity of last season’s bench aided McMillan in managing playing time. It’s easier to shave minutes from your top players when your reserves have the highest aggregate plus-minus per 100 possessions in the league. Will that still be the case for a second unit heavy on youth in the form of Aaron Holiday, Edmond Sumner, T.J. Leaf, and Goga Bitadze? Or, will increased staggering be required until Jeremy Lamb slides back to the bench?

If that’s the case, McMillan deserves credit for evolving with the times, but he may still need to open his mind to proactively and strategically scheduling rest games for key players — even at the risk of sacrificing short-term gains.

In that regard, planning to rule out Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis for the second of two preseason game in India, after both players participated in the FIBA World Cup in China, seems like a step in the right direction.