At issue is whether Leonard, who played just nine games during the 2017-18 season due to injury, is officially healthy. In 2017, the NBA implemented a new rule that subjected teams to fines of up to $100,000 if they rested healthy players for nationally televised games.
According to the NBA, Leonard is “suffering from an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee” that exempts him from those rules. The league said Wednesday, and confirmed Thursday, that the Clippers acted appropriately in resting Leonard on Wednesday as part of an “injury protocol” that calls for him to avoid playing in back-to-back games.
Leonard sounded less than pleased that the NBA had issued a statement with specifics about his health condition and that Rivers had been fined.
“[The news release] was shocking, but it doesn’t matter to me,” Leonard said, after finished with a game-high 27 points and 13 rebounds in a 107-101 home win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday. “I’m not a guy who reads the media anyway. We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy. … [The fine from the NBA] was just disappointing. It feels like they want players to play if they’re not ready. It is what it is. I don’t read into it. I have to do what’s going to make me healthy and what’s going to help the team be successful.”
Leonard, 28, did not play in back-to-back games last season as a member of the Toronto Raptors, and has avoided two back-to-backs this season. He rested during an Oct. 30 road loss to the Utah Jazz, a game that was also nationally televised, so that he could play in a home win over the San Antonio Spurs the next night. Leonard played against the Trail Blazers on Thursday after sitting out Wednesday’s loss to the Bucks, and he confirmed Thursday night that doctors have advised him not to play in back-to-back games.
The Clippers drew the fine because Rivers made statements that the NBA believed “were inconsistent with Leonard’s health status.” Rivers suggested Wednesday that Leonard was healthy, leading observers to assume that the rest was a precaution and therefore a potential violation of the league’s load management rules.
“He feels great,” Rivers said at his pregame availability. “He feels great because of what we’ve been doing. There’s no concern here. I think Kawhi made a statement that he’s never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way. That’s important. He played a lot of minutes in the playoffs last year. It’s not a health thing. It is, in some ways. We want him to just keep feeling better.”
Leonard has performed like an MVP candidate during his first season with the Clippers, averaging 29.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. He has undergone extensive treatment after every game, and said last week that his long-term health and mobility influences his health management plan.
“I just want to be able to walk strong when I’m done playing this game,” he said. “My son motivates me to keep playing. Once he gets to the age to play basketball, I want to be able to play basketball with him still.”