In recent days, the talking heads on TV and radio have gotten sore throats discussing the Los Angeles Clippers load-managing Kawhi Leonard during Wednesday’s match-up against the Milwaukee Bucks, citing the toughness of stars from past eras in attempting to criticize Leonard for being in and out of the line-up.
It didn’t help matters when the NBA fined the Clippers $50,000 for comments made by Doc Rivers, citing Leonard as “feeling great”, hours after the NBA had announced they understood that Leonard was not consistently in good health due to knee and persistent thigh-related issues, and were thus understanding of his game-to-game availability.
But this is where context matters a great deal. This was Rivers’ quote:
“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way.”
Rivers is referring to Leonard’s incredible start to the season, and accurately pointing out that load management plays a significant part in maintaining Leonard’s production.
Leonard, who’s missed two games so far, is averaging an eye-popping 29 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks while playing just 30.9 minutes a night. Those are elite numbers, and the vast majority of those figures represent career-bests for Leonard personally.
The trend of load-managing Leonard is one the Clippers continued after seeing the dividends from last year, when Toronto initiated the process with the All-Star, ultimately limiting Leonard to 60 games in the regular season, allowing him to enter the playoffs healthy, which led to an NBA championship.
The Clippers organization, which is now well-run after years of ineptitude, clearly decided to copy Toronto’s approach to Leonard, as to optimize their use of him in the long run. The Clippers entered the season as favorites to win the championship, so there’s something larger on the line here than regular season games. If the Clippers were to overplay Leonard during the season, and it led to complications that would leave him limited during the playoffs, the media narrative would immediately be flipped on its head.
But what about the guy it’s all about? It’s his body after all, so it might be worth hearing what he thinks of being saved for bigger moments.
Well, Leonard is a fan of the plan.
As he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols back in June during the Finals, he simply wouldn’t have been playing, had the Raptors not spared him over the course of a long season.
And yet, Leonard’s words seems like a distant priority in this conversation, which is frankly ridiculous. NBA players, especially the very best of them, need to be in peak physical condition to compete on an elite level on a nightly basis. Given how they’re the ones putting in the actual work, it’d behoove everyone to listen to what they have to say on this matter.
What’s further irreconcilable is how the backlash against Leonard and the Clippers center around quality, when that is exactly what Leonard is prioritizing. Fans and pundits argue games that Leonard miss are worth less for attendees, yet Leonard is taking every measure to deliver on those expectations in the games that he does play.
Would those same people prefer Leonard to play more games, but do so while being significantly less impactful? Would fans be more willing to shell out extra cash to see Leonard limp his way onto the court and shoot 2-for-15?
This boils down to the age-told question of quality over quantity. The NBA has an 82-game schedule in the regular season. As it stands, Leonard’s body simply cannot function at peak capacity over that amount of games. That doesn’t mean he isn’t as tough, or determined, as the league’s stars of the past. It simply means Leonard is acknowledging that his knee and thigh need more treatment, and more time off, to consistently produce at the level he aspires to. If anything, that’s determination.
Joel Embiid from the Philadelphia 76ers is also having his minutes and games monitored, as has been the case for years now. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP, is averaging a modest 32.7 minutes a night, almost equal to the 32.8 he received last year. In fact, Antetokounmpo played his second-lowest minutes total in his career last season (2,358), yet was more effective than ever before.
Citing star players getting spared in games as “soft” or referring to the old days is a boring and tired argument that completely ignores how the game has changed. In today’s league, where players coming in from college are essentially asked to be far more established in their all-around game, and where defense is way more centered on switching, hedging and rotating than ever before, movement, and thus pressure on joints, is at an all-time high. Players are cutting more, and their training regiments are harder and harsher than of those who came before.
As science has evolved, so has the understanding of the human body, to which trainers, doctors, and coaches are keenly aware. When a team makes decisions off those advancements, it’s because they feel it puts them, and their players, in an advantageous position. And given that the league insists on the same 82-game format, that seems entirely reasonable.
Players are different, as are their bodies. Some may be capable to play 40 minutes a night and wake up without pain. Good for them. Sincerely. But that doesn’t take away anything from those who ache the following morning, or those who need additional treatment after games.
Say it with me now: “Whatever works for the player”.