Mostly, Leonard doesn’t trust that his body can withstand the NBA grind anymore, not after a quad injury cost him all but nine games of the 2017-18 season, not after it led to a dispute with the San Antonio Spurs that ended with Leonard forcing a trade. Last season, Leonard figured out a better way to survive, playing in just 60 of 82 games, saving himself for the postseason and leading the Toronto Raptors to the title with a Finals MVP performance.
Now with the Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard spent the preseason explaining that this wouldn’t be a year of load management. Then his left knee started bothering him. So load management reigns, and the would-be king of the NBA will settle for trying to beat King James when it really matters.
There’s an NBA regular season in progress that is supposed to matter more than any in recent memory, yet here is Leonard — more admired than he ever has been after last year’s triumph — sitting out of two front ends of back-to-back games and inadvertently ruining the interest in nationally televised matchups. He isn’t the only player being cautious; Russell Westbrook is among other prominent names on a preventive plan. But without question, Leonard has become the poster child of the load-management era, which infuriates former players and leaves both fans and television executives worried about whether players will help them get their money’s worth on any given night.
For an NBA product that needs value and consistency to thrive, this is a problem. And it’s much more than merely a Kawhi-related issue. Leonard is just the face of what’s happening. For much of the past decade, teams have been trying to work around the reality that this generation of players can’t hack the 82-game season.
You can accuse them of being soft. You can rip them for seeming to have callous attitudes about what they owe to fans who pay a lot of money to watch them sit on the bench in their street clothes. You can foresee issues with integrity as an era of mass legalized sports gambling nears. But the fact is, the bodies of current NBA players are speaking the loudest. And those bodies are screaming that they can’t handle such a long season.
There are plenty of possible factors, including overtraining and players possessing more athleticism than their bodies can support. Advancements in sports science also provides teams with better information, which leads to a greater understanding of the risks of grinding through certain aches. What used to be consider “toughness” was influenced just as much by blindness. The truth is clearer now. So the current problem isn’t as simple as blaming today’s player for being too coddled, too rich and too unconcerned.
Still, it’s a problem. And it’s one that will require NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has the temperament and mental agility to solve this dilemma, to do his best work. While this isn’t an existential threat to the NBA, it’s one of those maintenance issues that a commissioner can be proactive about fixing or risk it becoming a crisis down the road.
Silver has been open-minded about the NBA schedule during his five years in charge. The league has started the season as much as two weeks earlier to create more sprawl, reduce the number of back-to-back games and add more time off during the All-Star break. Lately, Silver has entertained the thought of reducing the 82-game schedule, but it would make maximizing revenue in the next television contract negotiations trickier. Silver would have to be at his creative best, and he would need to be in perfect alignment with Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
It would be a landmark achievement for a major sports league if the NBA could determine how to make business sense of the common-sense notion that less is more. In previous columns, I have urged the NFL to forget about schedule expansion, package its games better and create more moments during the regular season. But admittedly, there’s only so much that can be done during a tight 16-game, 17-week season. There are more opportunities for the NBA to be creative with its 30 teams all playing a six-month, marathon season.
The first and most important step in any schedule reduction would be to eliminate teams having to play games on consecutive nights — or come as close as possible to zero back-to-backs. Within the 82-game structure, the league has made huge strides in this area. Five years ago, teams averaged 19.3 back-to-backs. This season, that average is down to 12.4, marking the fifth straight year with a decrease. Perhaps there’s a way to devise a 75-game schedule in which the back-to-backs are so few that it won’t even be a concern anymore.
There are more dramatic ideas, and Silver has imagined carving out time for a midseason tournament of some kind. No possible solution is easy, but the NBA has the marketing team to rebrand whatever it decides. And the concept of 82 games, while full of tradition, isn’t as sacred to basketball as the schedule is in other sports.
The NBA always will be a league built around the personalities of its stars. There have been periods in which the greatest players have been less appealing to the public, but for the most part, this model has worked. And when there is a fantastic crop of athletes — such as now — the game really explodes in interest. But it ties the league to the stars in a way that is both special and complicated. So when there is a trend among the players, a shift in mentality must occur.
The NBA is almost at that point with load management. Leonard shouldn’t be vilified for his actions. By most accounts, he is a model superstar. He’s a winner. He’s the undisputed best two-way player in basketball. He cares little about the frills of stardom; he just works, expands his game, stays out of trouble and even attempts to smile on occasion. He gives as much to his team as any player in the sport. He’s intensely competitive in a sport often ridiculed for being too friendly. He doesn’t just absorb contact; he seeks it, no matter the cost. But that kind of physical sacrifice makes it so difficult to keep him healthy.
You can criticize Leonard, but think about this for a moment: If this guy — who often seems concerned with nothing other than basketball — needs frequent breaks from the game, perhaps the game needs to change to accommodate players with his relentless style.
Right now, more basketball is guaranteeing less superstar availability. Leonard won a title this way, and he may collect more rings. So this trend is going to become only a bigger problem. The NBA has to make a decision: Suffer through load management or manage the load itself.