This was always part of the deal.
From the time Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers, there was bound to be a night like their Wednesday night, when a big game suddenly became less big because he was out of their lineup.
Unpopular as it might be, the Clippers have to do this, even if it means setbacks like their 129-124 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. If Leonard says he can’t play on consecutive nights, the Clippers have to listen to him, even if doing so deprives a national television audience a showdown between Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as was the case at Staples Center.
The Clippers have too much invested in this season.
Not the regular season. The postseason.
They didn’t trade Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and five first-round draft picks to dominate the 82 games played from late-October to mid-April. They gambled their future and reshaped their franchise to win 16 games after that.
A championship has become the one acceptable outcome.
If that wasn’t already the case, it certainly is now, considering how the Clippers have chosen to deal with Leonard.
They have to win. They better win.
Only a title can justify load management, especially if the plan comes at the expense of the kinds of individual matchups that are crucial to the league’s popularity.
Only a title can justify the crushing disappointment experienced by a segment of Clippers fans every time Leonard sits out a game in which he could have played.
Fans such as Scott Campbell.
“I totally understand it,” Campbell said. “But when you’re in that situation, you’re a lot tougher. It sucks.”
Campbell, 42, used to be a Clippers season-ticket holder.
“Now I don’t have the money, having a whole family and everything,” he said.
His son, Hudson, is 6 and Campbell wanted to bring him to a game. So a few weeks ago, Campbell paid around $500 for three tickets in Section 106, including one for his friend Kiel Rucker.
The three of them traveled three hours by car from Santa Barbara for the game.
With his son by his side in a blue Clippers hoodie and a blue and white miniature basketball in his hands, Campbell said, “This is the last time I’ll get a ticket before the day of the game.”
Campbell works in a coffee shop. He woke up at 4 a.m. for his morning shift that day and expected to do that again Friday.
“I’m bummed,” Rucker said.
The disappointment wasn’t tempered by the league’s assertion that Leonard was “not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy.” Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that Leonard wasn’t playing as a preventative measure and was expected back in the lineup Thursday night when the Clippers host the Portland Trail Blazers.
Asked about fans who paid their hard-earned money to watch Leonard, Rivers said, jokingly, “They get to see me.”
When the laughter subsided, Rivers addressed the subject more seriously.
“Listen, I’m a fan of basketball as well, not just a coach,” he said. “I feel for that. I understand that. We obviously have to do what’s right by our players. We have to. It’s our duty. And for a fan, it’s just really a tough one. There’s no answer. There’s no correct answer that I’m going to give you that will satisfy that person.”
Was there a way to better balance the interests of the players and the fans?
“The issue is take away all the back-to-backs,” Rivers said. “That would be one.”
Until then, Clippers tickets will be something like baseball tickets in that buyers will be less certain about the players they can be expect to watch. Perhaps tickets should have warnings similar to what used to be printed on the bottom of old boxing advertisements: “Card subject to change.”
The question is whether this uncertainty would make the league consider reducing the number of regular-season games.
This is for the NBA’s franchise owners to consider.
Rivers’ concern is to win and to win now.
The Clippers are guaranteed to have Leonard and Paul George for only two seasons. That’s their window. If they don’t win now, they could lose both players after the 2020-21 season, which could condemn the franchise back to its dark ages.
And if winning is the priority, they should rest Leonard on nights like Wednesday night.
“He feels great,” Rivers said. “But he feels great because of what we’ve been doing.”
The plan resulted in a championship last season for the Toronto Raptors. It could do the same for the Clippers this season or, rather, it has to do the same for the Clippers this season.