To perform at their peak throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, NBA players need to be subjected to sufficient loads to withstand the rigors of practicing and playing, without becoming overloaded to the point their performance declines and availability is jeopardized. This is why load management, including load monitoring and load forecasting, are so critical for NBA teams today.
To make informed decisions about training, game, and cumulative loads, staff can use the Smartabase athlete management system to assess load data alongside crucial contextual information. Such an integrative approach identifies windows of opportunity to optimize performance or implement mitigation strategies that drive recovery.
In this article and the accompanying video, we’ll show how Smartabase is used by NBA performance and coaching staff for load management, answering the question “what should we do with our players today and tomorrow?”
LOAD MANAGEMENT: DATA INPUTS
To make accurate and effective decisions around load management, NBA staff need to form a full picture of each player’s load exposure in games, practices, strength and conditioning (S+C) sessions, see how this is impacting performance and recovery, and consider the impact of overall wellbeing and other contextual factors.
Smartabase enables staff to combine current and complete data sources that capture external and internal load metrics, monitor recovery in real time, and incorporate players’ subjective appraisals of exertion in a single platform that’s readily accessible to performance, coaching, and medical staff.
INTERNAL LOAD MONITORING
The evaluation of internal load is still a developing field, but NBA teams are making progress in determining how well or poorly each player responds to the external stimuli they’re subjected to in training and games. They can then start to identify when individuals are adapting and progressing as intended and continue with what’s working well. Conversely, if a player is responding poorly and their current load exposure is becoming detrimental to their output or wellbeing, their load can be temporarily adjusted, preparation modified, or recovery improved.
Heart rate monitoring is one of the most widely researched ways to assess internal load. Teams can use a system such as Firstbeat to create a profile for each member of the roster that shows minimum, average, and maximum heart rate via individual sessions, a daily overview, and training history views. Managing these in Smartabase enables performance staff to overlay these details with specifics from the training plan so they can correlate external and internal loads through the lens of heart rate. Subjective information from questionnaires can provide another level of assessment, with players reporting their rate of perceived exertion (RPE) from 0 to 10 for each session.
EXTERNAL LOAD MONITORING
Currently, NBA teams focus most of their load monitoring efforts on external load. Widely utilized movement tracking systems enable the performance staff to monitor players during practices and games. Kinexon sensors track metrics like total distance, number of sprints, jumps, and changes of direction, and other data that can be used to create complete load profiles for each player in Smartabase. Kinexon normalizes data from the league-wide Second Spectrum video tracking system so coaches can better relate load exposure in games to training stimuli. A local positioning system (LPS) such as ClearSky from Catapult uses locally installed sensors to provide a further level of insight into players’ movement quantity and intensity.
Though some wearables vendors claim that their products directly aid in load management, their best current use case in the NBA is as recovery response tools. The Whoop Band, Apple Watch, and Oura Ring can all help monitor players when they’re away from the team facility, providing valuable insights into sleep duration and quality, HRV, resting heart rate, and other metrics. Using Smartabase, your performance staff can use these to flag players if certain elements of recovery fall outside individualized ranges for a certain time period so the appropriate intervention can be taken to help a player bounce back better between practices and games.
WELLBEING & OTHER CONTEXTUAL FACTORS IN LOAD MONITORING
When assessing the load each player is exposed to and how these might need to be adjusted, it’s important to remember that NBA players’ bodies and brains don’t compartmentalize training but respond to it in the context of everything else that’s going on in their life at and away from the team facility.
As such, overall wellbeing impacts how each member of the roster responds to load. The Oura Ring shows how overnight and morning heart rate is trending for each player. Self-reporting through wellness questionnaires presented via Smartabase tell your performance staff how well rested players are each morning, monitor their emotional state, and highlight any off-court issues that might be impacting their on-court play, training response, and recovery.
Another key contextual load management consideration for the performance staff is the competitive schedule. The NBA calendar quickly ramps up from a handful of preseason games into the grind of the regular season’s 82 games, and then into the home and away games of a playoff series. While the overall volume of games is significant, it’s the density of the schedule along with the phase of the season that the team finds itself in that’s going to largely dictate practice loads and the factors that comprise them, such as the duration and intensity of each session on the practice floor and in the weight room.
Another factor that is brought to bear on player loads during the competitive season is the travel schedule. If the team is playing several home games in a row, players are going to be able to stick to a fairly consistent schedule, which will allow them to rest sufficiently in their own beds, standardize their sleep and wake times, and, for those with families, build in time with spouses/partners and kids. However, there might still be some wrinkles that disrupt their routines and recovery practices, such as late or early games. When they’re on a road trip, players’ sleep and meal schedules will be shaken up, with them often snatching a few hours’ rest on the plane or at a hotel before moving on to the next destination. Such aberrations can create a much higher internal load than players are used to when they’re at home, compromising their ability to adapt to training stimuli and putting them at risk of overload.
The nature of pro basketball itself can also impact how well players handle their external load. This can include each opponent’s style of play and positional demands. For example, chasing around fast guards and wings who play a run-and-gun game at a high pace can wear down the players who are guarding them, while forwards and centers might be more challenged when they face strong, physical opponents. On the offensive end, an explosive, high-flying small forward will be exposed to a different overall load than a center who plays a slower, back-to-the-basket style.
A team’s own playing style can also influence load exposure, because a relentless press-and-break imposes a different demand on players than a more deliberate half-court offense and zone defense. The duration of each contest can impact load exposure as well, as members of the starting lineup could log over 50 minutes in an overtime or double OT game. Usage rate can become a factor too, with a player like Nikola Jokic or Luka Doncic who scores or assists on a high percentage of his team’s points having a higher external load than a benchwarmer who only gets on the floor late in the fourth quarter. Each player’s injury history, current status, and training age needs to also be taken into account when assessing game-by-game and cumulative loads.
LOAD MANAGEMENT: METRICS & ANALYSIS
To enable an NBA performance team to get the most out of its load monitoring analysis, Smartabase brings together data on external and internal load, acute-to-chronic workload ratio, relative-to-game intensity, rolling load sums (aka volume of work over time), and other metrics.
These allow staff to compare similar sessions, relate the intensity and volume of practices to what players experience during a game, and mitigate sudden spikes in intensity that can predispose individuals to injury.
Presenting findings through the lens of performance can help obtain greater buy-in from players and coaches alike, as can working backward from in-game targets and training goals. It is also helpful to focus load monitoring on certain time periods to show how recent load scores compare to those in a previous block. Assessing the impact of certain intensity and volume totals can also prove beneficial, particularly when overlaid with internal load data to provide additional context.
INTERNAL LOAD MANAGEMENT
Time in Heart Rate Zones and Training Impulse (TRIMP)
To enable a more thorough assessment of NBA players’ internal load – which can then be compared against external stimuli for load balancing purposes – Smartabase makes it easy to manage a wide range of detailed heart rate data.
In his early research into load management, physiologist Eric Banister created the training impulse (TRIMP) method for quantifying training load by calculating intensity through the combination of duration and heart rate. Smartabase displays how long each player spends in the five HR zones, with the higher intensity ones receiving a greater weighting score. Coaches can see the overall rating for how hard a session was and any other TRIMP calculations that give them greater insight into internal load. If you prefer another method, you can easily build your custom models, metrics, and calculations in Smartabase.
Maximum and Average Heart Rate
NBA teams employ Smartabase to utilize maximum and average heart rate and other data from wearable HR monitors or wearables from Polar or Garmin to calculate the load that each session is placing on every player’s cardiovascular system.
Z scores then show how many standard deviations above or below the individual’s baseline they go, with a yellow or red flag automatically applied if it’s outside the desired range so that load can be adjusted going forward. Z scores can be created and compared for both games and practices.
In a paper published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance, a team led by Heidi Thornton stated that “standard tens (STEN) scores are an effective tool (anecdotally) for expressing Z-scores on a 1 to 10 scale,” to coaches and other practitioners. STEN scores standardize Z scores so that every subject matter expert can get on the same page when monitoring players’ internal load.
If your team leverages heart rate data differently, you can easily create what you need in Smartabase.
TYPE OF SESSION
When evaluating internal, external, and cumulative load that NBA players are subjected to, it’s important that NBA teams make apples-to-apples comparisons. For example, while the data for five-on-five scrimmages, conditioning drills, weight room sessions, and skill development work can all prove useful, there are too many differences to try and make head-to-head comparisons and draw meaningful load management decisions. Smartabase enables staff to compare loads and spot trends in similar training environments, and also see side-by-side load data for games.
ACUTE/CHRONIC WORKLOAD RATIO
Smartabase supports all methods of calculating acute-to-chronic workload ration (ACWR). These include standard average, exponential weighted average, and the ratio as coupled or decoupled for acute and chronic workload windows. In Smartabase, performance professionals can also compare ACWR from any time window, such as looking at scores for the past five days compared to the last 21 days. This can help identify sharp increases in ACWR that might require programming changes or increased recovery so that players aren’t subjected to loads that they cannot adequately adapt to and recover from.
ROLLING LOAD SUMS – VOLUME OF WORK OVER TIME
When monitoring load, it benefits NBA performance staff to not only look at players’ averages, but also to keep an eye on the volume of work that they’re doing over time. Smartabase also provides insight into the load floors and ceilings. If a member of the roster drops below a certain floor customized to their baseline load, they will be underprepared for upcoming games, so their intensity or volume might need to go up. Whereas if they go above their typical load ceiling, their readiness can be compromised, so staff will need to reduce their load, increase their recovery, or both.
RELATIVE TO GAME INTENSITY
It’s important that NBA personnel don’t just look at training load in isolation, but also compare this to the demands of the game so they can dial in each player’s preparation. As such, coaches can see in Smartabase what volumes and intensities training elicits as a percentage of a typical game, using stats from both situations. In a study of running intensity, researchers from Victoria University and La Trobe University stated that “knowledge of the peak intensities attained during competition allows coaches to adequately prepare athlete for these demands through appropriate training methodologies.” Such data can help provide load-per-minute information that informs a more effective use of practice drills as game preparation.
When assessing the external load each player is experiencing, NBA sports scientists can use LPS and accelerometer data to see individual session and daily totals for running volume, which can include time on legs (aka running volume), the number and distance of accelerations and decelerations, and low, mid, and high-speed running.
Systems from Kinexon and Catapult can also send overall mechanical load and intensity numbers into Smartabase. As basketball features a lot of quick switches from offense to defense and vice versa, it’s also beneficial to assess the transitions that players make and how many of these are in high-speed bands that require extended efforts like grabbing a defensive rebound and then leading a fast break. All of these metrics can be considered in terms of intensity and volume and assigned Z and STEN scores, so they’re easily presented to players and coaches.
INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL LOAD MONITORING
As valuable as it can be for NBA performance staff to evaluate player load using either internal or external load monitoring, just using either in isolation will provide limited benefits due to a lack of context. In a paper on evidence-based load monitoring, Darren Burgess from the University of Adelaide wrote that “The combination of internal with external load monitoring perhaps provides the ideal scenario to assess player fitness, fatigue and readiness to train or play.”
LOAD MANAGEMENT: REPORTING
Messaging to and communicating with coaches is a crucial component of load management in the NBA. It’s unrealistic to tell a head or assistant coach that they need to pull a player out of a team practice or limit their playing time in a game if they cross a certain threshold.
A better approach is to simply and succinctly present load data and then work together to find ways to redistribute the player’s overall load exposure and/or enhance their recovery. This second point also pertains to the players themselves. It’s no use trying to show them raw data they won’t understand. Instead, the performance staff can get greater buy-in for load management strategies if they connect the information to how someone is playing, training, or recovering.
The reporting features in Smartabase make it easier to customize how load management findings are presented to each audience and other roles via visual dashboards.
LOAD MONITORING DASHBOARDS
Using Smartabase’s customizable dashboards, teams can report on just about any aspect of load monitoring. One of the most effective use cases is utilizing what happened in today’s session to highlight any members of the squad whose load or recovery needs to be adjusted before tomorrow’s practice or game. A session report displays a couple of key metrics – such as distance covered, HR average, total distance Z score, and HR Z score.
The dashboard displays players with high discrepancy between their external load and internal response in red, indicating that some kind of action might be needed to manage their load or enhance their recovery. If a player is highlighted in orange, there’s a moderate disparity, suggesting that if the trend continues, the staff might need to intervene. Green highlighting designates those individuals who are responding well to their current external load.
The second component of the workload monitoring dashboard (which can also be configured to meet a team’s specific needs) concerns workload progression. This displays the total distance each player covered in a session with their average for such a workout, and then their STEN score. Below is a bar graph showing how all three metrics have evolved over time. Other dashboarding options include detailing specific metrics like game and practice loads, HRV, heart rate, sleep scores, and so on, depending on the needs of each specialty.
LOAD MANAGEMENT: TAKING ACTION
With increasing media coverage of load management in the NBA and injury mitigation, some might assume that this use case only exists to reduce player loads. This can sometimes be the case, particularly when objective load data is supplemented by information about contextual factors like game density, travel, and overall wellbeing.
But monitoring player loads in Smartabase can help NBA staff make other informed interventions too, like prompting increased use of recovery modalities when a player is flagged and providing windows of opportunity to optimize performance by pushing certain athletes harder when their load exposure is too low.
Utilizing Smartabase for load management allows NBA performance and coaching staff to better handle performance goals relative to each player’s position, current and intended role on the team, and development path. With comprehensive external and internal load data at their fingertips, staff can also make adjustments to the training schedule, like starting individual and team activities earlier or later in the day, as load and stress undulate throughout the course of the season.
With Smartabase, S+C coaches, sports scientists, head and assistant coaches, and other professionals can come together to dial in load exposure so that players can be at their best on the court when it counts, while also preserving their overall health, durability, and wellbeing.
OTHER USE CASES FOR NBA TEAMS