Over the last few seasons, the NBA has drawn attention to itself because of the periodic habit some teams have of resting players during the season. There is a phrase for it – load management.
The problem with sitting players purely to give them a blow during the long season is a public relations one. The league is worried how the exercise impacts its fans, who pay to see stars, and its television partners, who schedule national games partly to showcase them.
This issue is a prickly one and it was back in focus this week when the Los Angeles Clippers decided to give Kawhi Leonard a second night off when the team was scheduled for a national telecast against the Milwaukee Bucks.
On Thursday, the NBA fined Clippers coach Doc Rivers $50,000 for making comments it viewed were inconsistent with the status of Leonard’s health. He has been convalescing an injured knee.
In announcing the fine, the NBA explained Leonard’s injury by saying the team was compliant in load management by “reasonably” determining that “Leonard is suffering from an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games.”
The fine was assessed because Rivers said before the Bucks game that Leonard was fine and there was no reason for anyone to be worried about him. The league viewed that as Rivers being purposely untruthful.
According to USA TODAY, teams are expected to file injury reports to the league on days preceding games. The NBA then asks independent physicians to confirm the listed injuries before condoning a team’s desire to rest a player.
The league does not want to be perceived as looking the other way when a team rests a star for no apparent reason. If a player is hurt, the league expects its teams to come clean about it. Rivers problem was he decided not to tell the whole truth. And the NBA feels that made them looked bad.
After Thursday night’s 107-101 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Los Angeles, Leonard was asked about the fine.
“I mean it was shocking, but it doesn’t matter to me,” Leonard said when asked about the decision to disclose details about his injury. “I’m not a guy that reads the media anyway. We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing, me being healthy moving forward.”
Naturally, the fans at the game and network televising it would naturally wonder why a player of Leonard’s stature was not playing if he was OK. It’s all about the league’s desire for transparency about injures to clear up or explain any misunderstanding.
“For me, I’m on his side, you know what I mean?” Leonard said when asked about the league fining the Clippers. “I’m a Clipper, he’s my coach. That’s just disappointing. It feels like they want players to play if they’re not ready.
“It is what it is. Like I said, I don’t read into it. I got to do what makes me healthy and is going to help the team be successful and that’s me being able to play basketball games for us.”
This was the second time Leonard had sat out the first game of a back-to-back set, the first during a Clippers loss at Utah in another nationally televised game on Oct. 30.
“Well, he looked well-rested,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said of Leonard. “He was able to take it to another gear in the fourth quarter.”
Before the season began, Leonard admitted he was feeling better and might not need as much time off as his received last season in Toronto when he played in only 60 regular-season games. That decision paid off big time for the Raptors who rolled to the NBA Championship behind Leonard who averaged 30.5 points in 24 postseason games.
This is really a no-win situation for the teams and their players. The league expects them to play their stars as often as possible, but the teams need to manage the health of their players and sometimes that requires them to be rested. All the league asks is that the teams are open about their intentions.
“Like I said, we are going to keep managing it moving forward,” Leonard said. “I’m not a doctor and that’s for what the doctors and my training staff is for, letting me know and just telling how I feel and just got to keep moving it forward.”
Rivers was obviously disappointed with the fine.
“Sometimes you agree with fines, sometimes you don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. That is the one thing I’ve learned.”
Los Angeles is the third team that has voluntarily rested Leonard during the regular season to preserve his health. If you recall, Gregg Popovich did it regularly when Leonard played in San Antonio and then brushed off any complaints about the strategy.
The truth of the matter is that the Clippers are likely sacrificing wins in the regular season in hopes the rest will benefit them in the postseason
“What I love about him and several of our guys is he plays the game to win,” Rivers said of Leonard. “He has the ability to get by what happened during the game. Because of his closing time, he has the ability to focus.”
After the win over the Trail Blazers, Leonard was honest when asked when asked if the controversy over his load management was worth it.
“The goal is to try to win a championship,” he said.