Kawhi Leonard, RJ Barrett and the many layers of the complicated 'load management' debate

The two most lasting things to come from Kawhi Leonard's one-season stint with the Toronto Raptors are, and forever will be, the first championship in franchise history and this idea of "load management." I don't know who first came up with that term, but it's become entrenched in the NBA lexicon and inextricably linked to Leonard -- who famously, or perhaps infamously, didn't play in a single back-to-back game for Toronto last season and missed 22 regular-season games in total. 

It worked, I suppose. Nobody can prove whether the Raptors' playoff run would've gone differently had Leonard played in, say, 68 regular-season games instead of 60. Truth is, the Raptors were THIS CLOSE to losing in the second round anyway. In an alternate scenario where Kawhi's game-winner bounces a quarter inch differently, and the Raptors end up losing Game 7 to the 76ers in OT, there would be no championship, or even a conference finals berth, to empirically validate the strategy. 

But Kawhi's shot did go in. And the Raptors did win the title. And now it's starting to feel like resting -- er, load managing -- your best player, or players, is the only route to championship contention. The Clippers said they weren't going to do it with Kawhi, at least not as aggressively as Toronto did, but here we are barely three weeks into the season and Leonard has already been a healthy scratch twice. 

On Oct. 30, Leonard didn't play in a nationally televised game against the Jazz because the Clippers had a game the following night against the Spurs, in which Leonard played. On Wednesday, Leonard was again in street clothes for the Clippers game against the Bucks, again on national television, because the Clippers play again Thursday night in Portland, where Leonard is expected to be in the starting lineup. 

Obviously nobody can predict whether the Clippers will sit Kawhi on either the front or back end of every back-to-back they play this season, but if they do, that would be a minimum of 13 games that Kawhi would miss. Throw in a few more for actual injuries, and we're very likely looking at another regular season in which perhaps the best player in the world misses 25 percent of his team's games. 

It's a sticky thing, this load management. Old timers are quick to call the new generation of stars "soft" while romancing about the days when guys played all 82 and flew commercial, but we've come a long way in our understanding of what is, and isn't, good for our bodies. The data is pretty clear: there's a price to be paid for overtaxing athletes. It comes in the form of injuries, or at least an increased susceptibility to injuries. It decreases performance. Rest, both physical and mental, is an unquestionably good thing, and the lack of it compounds over time. 

That said, there are multiple ways in which teams can, and do, account for player rest over the course of a long season. You can limit practice time. You can reduce minutes, and, in fact, all NBA players today are playing, on average, four fewer minutes per game than they did 15 years ago. You can stay the night in the same city after a road game instead of immediately flying to the next one, which throws sleep patterns, to whatever extent they exist in the NBA, completely out of whack. 

The point is, sitting out actual games doesn't necessarily have to be part of that schedule. It can be, but it doesn't HAVE to be. Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who hasn't been one to hold healthy players out of games in the past, recently spoke on this. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Rest is an interesting thing. Rest is important," Snyder said. "Rest is important with whether you have a shootaround or not, important with whether you stay over when you have an East Coast road trip, important with when you have practice times. There are so many factors that go into it. We kind of encapsulate it now in 'load management.' I think it's very specific to a situation or player or team. It's something we're conscious of and believe in."

For the teams that do believe in limiting the actual amount of games their heaviest-burdened players are playing, where do you draw the line? Perhaps sitting Kawhi Leonard -- who we know has a chronic quad problem that has already cost him an entire season and had him gimping around in last year's playoffs like he had a nail stuck in his thigh -- as part of a long-term plan is understandable, if not advisable. 

But a rubber-legged teenager? Last Sunday, 19-year-old RJ Barrett played 40 minutes in a game and Knicks coach David Fizdale actually had to answer for his actions. Fizdale wasn't having it.

"We've got to get off this load management crap," a clearly agitated Fizdale told reporters. "Latrell Sprewell averaged 42 minutes for a season. This kid is 19 years old. Drop it already." 

A lot of people, both in and out of the league, agree with Fizdale. ESPN broadcaster and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy calls it the "wussification" of sports. You can bet a lot common people are right there with Van Gundy. NBA players are getting paid absurd amounts of money to play basketball. Not to watch it. 

The people watching basketball are the ones who pay the salaries of guys like Kawhi Leonard. They're the ones who are dropping hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to go to these games, and hundreds more for fancy television packages, and suffice it to say they're not ponying up that kind of cash to watch the backups. They deserve to get what they paid for. 

That's the rub of all this. The stiffing of the fans, without whom the league literally would not exist and these guys would have to find some other way to make $30 million to work six months a year for 40 minutes a night. I know there's a lot more to it than that. I know players are working a lot behind the scenes and 82 games is a marathon slate, especially when these games are being played at a faster pace than ever. But the work-to-pay ratio is, needless to say, pretty player friendly. 

And you can bet the players don't want to make less money. I remember my CBS colleague and former NBA player Raja Bell being asked about this on the Kanell and Bell podcast. The long-proposed idea of reducing the amount of regular-season games on the schedule came up -- say, 70 games instead of 82 -- and Bell said he wouldn't have been in favor of that as a player, and doesn't think today's players would be either, if it meant a cut in pay. 

So you can't have it both ways. If you want to be paid based on a certain workload, don't you then have to honor that workload as long as you're able to do so? Teams, of course, say they have the bigger picture in mind, and it's true. Obviously teams are going to look at the season through the long lens of winning a title at the end. That's the ultimate reason they play. But big-time professional sports exist at the intersection of competition and entertainment, and there's certainly a case to be made that the latter part of that equation is being too easily dismissed. 

An NBA basketball game, in effect, is like a super popular Broadway play that travels around the country putting on nightly shows. People pay good money to go see that show, and they do so in good faith that the lead actor or actress, the best singer, the core part of the entertainment package you paid for in the first place, is actually going to perform. Those performers don't get to take a night off so they can be at their best in the last show of the season. They perform every night. That's the business. 

It's a tough business, no doubt. No common person can fully understand the toll of playing 82 NBA basketball games before the playoffs -- which are the hardest games of all -- even start. Flying private or not, jetting all over the country, in and out of different time zones, sleeping a few hours when and where you can, for six-to-eight straight months is a grind. You ever see Kevin McHale walking? He looks like he has broken glass in his shoes. 

So, yes, there are a lot of different ways to look at this. Managing the already outsized workload of the best NBA players is smart, and like it or not, it's here to stay. There's little question that LeBron James is still an athletic machine in his 17th season because he's prioritized the meticulous management of his body, and sitting out regular-season games, sometimes for a week or two at a time over the latter third of his career, has clearly provided benefit.  

But there is a cost to that benefit, and in the end, as always, the fans are the ones footing the bill. 

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