QUEBEC CITY – Alex McKechnie, the Toronto Raptors’ well-regarded director of sports science, is largely credited as the man who coined the phrase “load management” – a method the team used (successfully) to limit the regular season wear and tear on Kawhi Leonard last year, en route to an NBA championship.
It wasn’t exactly a novel concept – the idea of sitting a healthy player out as a precaution, instead of due to an injury. Teams have been doing so for years, particularly late in the season. The most notable example was the San Antonio Spurs, as Gregg Popovich would routinely give his veteran stars rest nights, much to the dismay of the league.
The NBA did not care for that terminology, as you’ll recall – “rest” – so McKechnie and the Raptors gave it a scientific makeover and took it to a whole new level in order to protect their prized rental.
Coming off a mysterious quad injury that cost him most of his final year in San Antonio, Leonard played in 60 regular season games during his lone campaign with Toronto. On record, 15 of the 22 he missed were for “load management”.
It was an unprecedented way to approach the workload of a (relatively) healthy star in his prime and it raised eyebrows throughout the association. Fans questioned it, as did players, coaches, execs and, yes, the league itself. However, Toronto’s medical staff, working in conjunction with Leonard and his people, stuck to their guns, and it paid off.
Leonard sustained and played through a knee injury in the playoffs, something he’s admitted he probably wouldn’t have been able to do if he logged more minutes during the season. The rest is history. The Raptors won the championship, Leonard was named Finals MVP, and then the superstar forward left to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, who will almost certainly adopt some form of load management for the coming season.
Even in the post-Kawhi era, load management could live on in Toronto, though.
With training camp underway in Quebec City and opening night just over three weeks down the road, the Raptors plan to be cautious with their two oldest players – Marc Gasol, who will turn 35 in January, and Kyle Lowry, who turns 34 in March.
Lowry is being held out of contact drills and scrimmages early in camp after undergoing surgery on his left thumb in late-July. There’s no timetable for his return to full practice or indication of whether he’ll play in the team’s first pre-season games – Oct. 8 and 10 against the Houston Rockets in Japan. They’ll ease him in over the coming weeks and likely monitor his minutes closely early in the season as he gets back into game shape.
“I feel great,” Lowry said at media day on Saturday, before adding the disclaimer. “I’m not where I want to be, that’ll take a long time. It’s a long season when you go that far and kudos to the teams that do in back-to-back years.”
“I’m not where I want to be, physically, mentally, still a work in progress. Everything for me has been pushed back a month. I feel good, I’m in solid shape, not where I need to be but where I am now is where I [am]. It’s going to be a process, I’m not going to be balls to the wall, I’m a slow roller a little bit. Am I allowed to say balls to the wall? I really don’t care. I’m a slow roller, make sure I’m fully ready to go when the time comes.”
Gasol had about a week off after winning his first NBA title with Toronto – and then winning the parade celebration – before he joined the Spanish national team ahead of this summer’s FIBA World Cup. Following the tournament, which he and Spain won, he had roughly 10 days off before reporting to the Raptors for camp. He’s played more than 110 games in less than a year and had almost no time to rest over the summer.
As you might expect, Gasol was mostly a spectator for Toronto’s first practice on Sunday. The Raptors will closely monitor his workload throughout camp and even early in the season, being mindful of all the miles he’s accumulated recently.
“I just think A) he just finished a long run and B) it’s a long way to go to get to the summertime,” head coach Nick Nurse said following the team’s first session at Laval University. “So initially here we start out with holding him out for a while and then it’s just a matter of making sure [he’s ready]. I mean he has to do some stuff if he’s going to play in the exhibitions in Tokyo. He has to make sure he’s right and ready and healthy and can withstand that. So there’s a balance there a little bit but I’m really in no hurry to see him hit the floor, especially in any of our contact stuff right now.”
That said, Gasol – like Lowry – is a competitor. Both veterans have been in this long enough to understand the importance of taking care of their bodies, and for that they’ll defer to the team’s medical staff. However, it’s only a matter of time before they get that itch and want to be out there with their teammates, if they don’t have it already.
“I think you have to trust the medical team,” said Gasol. “Obviously as a player, you always want to play, you know, your competitive nature. But you have to protect yourself from yourself a little bit. Let the guys who are professionals make those decisions.”
“If I [am worn down], mentally I’m getting through it. I’m not allowing it to prevent me from getting motivated and attacking this season with everything. I’m very excited, I’m working with the guys, and I’m looking forward.”
The Raptors went 17-5 without Leonard in the lineup last season and, once again, they should have the depth to win games if and when the vets need a night off. They have 12 players under guaranteed contract entering camp and each of them could conceivably play a role on this team at some point during the season.
Like last season, Nurse’s rotation should remain fluid throughout the year, something he alluded to when asked about his starting lineup on Sunday.
“I think there’s a big group of guys that could start a number of games,” he said.
The first three names he mentioned – Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Gasol – figure to be regulars when they’re in the lineup, but then he also brought up Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby and Patrick McCaw as guys that could earn starts.
So, even with Kawhi gone, load management could be making a return, though maybe not to last year’s extreme. Let’s call this conservative load management.