If a Kawhi Leonard load manages his body in Toronto and the NBA isn’t around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The absolute outrage over the past few days because the two-time Finals MVP was ruled out of an ESPN televised game against the Milwaukee Bucks has been perplexing from a Raptors perspective because one can’t help but wonder where all this criticism was during his time in Toronto. Leonard has now played six out of eight games in the 2019-20 season, twice missing one end of a back-to-back. This isn’t new.
Sure, the situation is different because instead of coming off a nine-game season in which his right quadriceps tendinopathy was largely a mystery, Leonard is now fresh off a 60-game regular season and 24-game playoff run that culminated in hoisting the Larry O.B., as he likes to call it.
But the problem with that view is that it barely scratches the surface of where his body’s at now and what it endured during that legacy-defining run.
Leonard didn’t participate in both halves of a back-to-back for the entirety of the 2018-19 season as part of Raptors sports science guru Alex McKechnie’s plan to ensure his body didn’t suffer, and he still hit a roadblock in progressing his health in the middle of January. After playing 45 minutes of a double-overtime win against the Washington Wizards that saw him limp to the finish line, he piled on another 36 high-leverage minutes for a tight Jan. 16 game in Boston. Leonard expectedly sat out the next night — a second half of a back-to-back — but then went on to rest for another seven days and miss three more games.
While the team publicly stated that this was all part of the load management plan at the time, Leonard later revealed that the process they were trusting had hit a snag and needed a coming-together-of-heads to figure out a solution.
What was figured out was good enough in hindsight, but Leonard was once again seen limping — as a result of soreness in his left knee due to overcompensation — through the Eastern Conference semis and finals. And despite playing at a superstar level in the NBA Finals, he wasn’t quite at his top gear.
After shooting 61.4 percent from 2-point range and 43.5 percent from 3 through the first 11 playoff games, those numbers dropped to 46.3 percent from two and 35.6 percent from beyond the arc over the final 13. Of course, some of that should be attributed to the defensive capabilities of the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, but the physical limitation certainly played its part. This is also why The Athletic’s reporting that Leonard didn’t see any type of contact basketball during the summer and sat out most of the full-contact portions of training camp makes complete sense.
Yet, here we are, asking why a player is resting when in fact Leonard is still, quite clearly, rehabbing. Now, the 28-year-old himself and his new team aren’t entirely blameless. They proclaimed that they wouldn’t look to manage Kawhi’s body the way Toronto did, and he admitted that he felt great and didn’t anticipate needing a fragile sticker. The Raptors made it clear from Day 1 what their plan was going to be, and as a result, nobody panicked. Underpromise and overdeliver 101.
The Clippers announced an overly optimistic plan ahead of the season and didn’t stick to it, so now we see the other side of the coin: A disgruntled television network, a $50,000 fine for head coach Doc Rivers, and a national discussion on the merits of load management.
“I think it’s just one of those things where it’s something that’s been going on for a long time, and you take a guy like Kawhi, who’s such a high-profile athlete, and you throw that catchphrase out there, people run with it,” Fred VanVleet said at a Raptors practice ahead of their West coast trip that includes a Monday night tilt with Leonard’s Clippers.
“So I think once you understand what it really is and what it means, then there’s no issue there. But if you’re just thinking that it’s load management every time a guy rests or every time a guy misses a game, I think it’s a little misinformed and I think you should really just do your research on what it actually means. And it’s different for each individual case. If there’s a guy coming off injury or trying to prevent an injury or whatever the case may be, by all means, he should be doing that.”
This isn’t arbitrary rest being doled out because a superstar is too good to show up to work everyday, this is a player doing what he must to maximize his longevity and success in a career with a limited shelf life while dealing with an archaic 82-game schedule. Leonard and his team stuck to their guns in San Antonio, did the same in Toronto, and will continue to do so for the remainder of his career.
ESPN can be up in arms for as long as it likes with regards to why Leonard skipped out on its network (for the second time this season) but opted for TNT’s, but it shouldn’t have been a choice in the first place. This is all a moot point if two nationally televised games weren’t scheduled as a back-to-back, something ESPN thankfully won’t have to worry about for the remainder of the season. This also isn’t a worry if there weren’t back-to-backs in the first place, and with all the science that’s shown the merits of proper load management, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed first.
Yes, this was supposed to be the first matchup between Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo since the two went toe-to-toe in the Eastern Conference Finals and fans would have been giddy over the prospect of the two doing battle. After all, playing in different conferences means there’s only two chances for the two to step on the same court (outside of the All-Star Game) before a possible showdown in the NBA Finals. The fans shouldn’t be robbed of that appointment viewing and that doesn’t just come down to the player and his team.
Engineered by TV talking heads and the general presentation of subject matter today, it seems as though everything must be black or white, on one side of the fence or the other. The truth about Kawhi, though, is that there is still very much plenty of grey with regards to his health, and with a chronic problem like his, there isn’t much of a debate to be had with regards to the choice between prevention and cure.
For those who weren’t paying attention to what happened in Toronto, Kawhi already had the last laugh once, and load management could very well be the reason he has it again.
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