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Column: Like it or not, Kawhi Leonard will have load lightened for Clippers

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket during the second half of a game against he Spurs at Staples Center.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket during the second half of a game against he Spurs at Staples Center.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Clippers coach Doc Rivers walks with a deliberate, rocking gait that hints at the damage heavy landings on hardwood courts did to his hips and knees during his playing career. There was no load management in his era, no thought to sitting out the second night of a back-to-back sequence as many NBA players do — and as Kawhi Leonard did for the first time as a Clipper on Wednesday.

“The reason I walk that way is because I kept playing,” Rivers said. “In our day if you missed anything, they would label you. And so you didn’t miss a minute in practice because you were scared to be labeled. So it’s just a different time, but I think it’s a better time, personally. I’m one of the old-school guys that think this new way is actually the right way of doing things. I really do. I think it’s about health, and for life health, too.”

Load management is the scourge of the NBA’s TV partners — the Clippers had to request the league’s approval to sit Leonard in Wednesday’s nationally televised game at Utah or incur a $100,000 fine — and a load of nonsense to fans who pay big bucks to see their favorite players and are disappointed when the coach makes it a load-management game for a key player or two. The concept isn’t going away, and the Clippers are calculating how often they’ll rest Leonard and other players to keep them fresh in April and beyond.

In his return on Thursday, Leonard hit merely five of 16 shots in the first half before warming up to finish with a season-high 38 points on 15-for-32 shooting in the Clippers’ 103-97 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. He played a season-high 34 minutes, seven seconds, including 10:55 in the fourth quarter of a generally tight game. “I think we were just aggressive all night,” Leonard said in a postgame TV interview. “It’s a good win.”

A well-rested Kawhi Leonard scores 38 points against former coach and team in the Clippers’ 103-97 win over the San Antonio Spurs.
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His schedule will be subject to careful management in November, when the Clippers will play three sets of back-to-back games. The first occurs next week with home games against Milwaukee on Wednesday and Portland on Thursday. The first game will be on national TV, so the game against the Trail Blazers could be a night Leonard sits. “We do it in advance, but what we have found out is when you do it, like, before the season starts it makes no sense,” Rivers said, adding that he leaves his coaching staff to decide when players will rest. “You get to the game and the guy feels great and you tell him, ‘This is your game,’ it’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Leonard sat out 22 of Toronto’s regular-season games last season, and his playoff performance reflected the benefits of that rest: He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists without missing any of the 24 games in the Raptors’ championship run. “Back in my day you just didn’t do it, so we didn’t know any better, do you know what I mean?” Rivers said. “What you don’t know will hurt you sometimes, I’ll say it that way.”

Credit — or blame — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for introducing the concept of load management. In November 2012 the NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 after Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Danny Green back to San Antonio instead of playing them at the Miami against the defending champion Heat. None was injured at the time; it was the end of a six-game trip and second half of a back-to-back sequence.

“Everybody does what they need to do for their players. We’ve done it,” Popovich said Thursday. “Everybody’s done it to some extent, maybe moreso now than in the past.

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“I’m sure guys like Larry Bird, Michael [Jordan] and Magic they’d wonder, ‘What the hell is going on around here? Just go play and be quiet.’ Can you imagine Kevin McHale saying, ‘I need rest tonight?’ It’s a new time and we’ve all done it so we’re all at fault, I guess.”

The NBA has eliminated sequences of four games in five nights and has moved up the start of the season to incorporate more days off. Teams also have fewer back-to-back sets than in the past. “Back-to-backs didn’t bother me as much as four games in five days in four cities. That was hard,” Rivers said. “So I think the league has responded. They’re doing a good job of trying to stretch the schedule to allow guys to play more and then I think the next step may be….reduced games.”

Popovich was non-committal about cutting the NBA schedule. “That’s above my pay grade,” he said. “I coach pick-and-roll and defense and things like that.”

Rivers suggested Popovich apply the concept of load management to coaches. “The coaching fraternity is now trying to figure out the right amount of games for coaches. I got it at 20,” Rivers said. Popovich agreed, and added an idea of his own. “I just wish we were in sweatsuits,” he said. “I’m serious. I’m a big proponent of gym shoes and sweatsuits.”

The NBA isn’t ready for leisurewear management. But load management, like it or not, is here to stay.


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