LOS ANGELES — It was both entertaining and uncomfortable to watch coach Doc Rivers explain away the reason for the latest firecracker thrown in the path of the NBA, and for his performance, especially in this industry town, Rivers should be nominated for an Academy Award.
“We’re all on board,” the Clippers coach said about a healthy Kawhi Leonard sitting out a must-see (for November anyway) game between the Clippers and Bucks and more specifically, Kawhi vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, because of load management.
Really? Everyone signed off on this? Well, we know who didn’t: ESPN, which is paying billions to hype mid-week NBA games involving stars, and fans at Staples Center who no doubt circled this game in ink when the schedule dropped months ago.
Otherwise, Rivers was correct, to an extent. And that’s the issue here. From the top of the organization to bottom, the Clippers had no choice but play it hyper-safe with Kawhi and rest him for the second time in eight games, even though he had two days off prior to Wednesday’s game, and even though there are three days off after Thursday’s game against the Blazers (10:30 ET, TNT).
Essentially, they signed off on the fine print included in the deal struck between them and Kawhi during free agency last summer. They really didn’t have much of a choice. Either agree to the body-sensitive demands of a top-five player who can instantly elevate a good team to a championship contender — see Raptors of last season — or watch him go to the Lakers. Kawhi hasn’t played back-to-back games in two years. This is his not-so-new normal. The Clippers wisely if not reluctantly shook hands on that detail.
Because when you think about it, what’s the harm here? OK, so ESPN analyst Doris Burke disagrees with the idea of resting two weeks into the season. Talk radio hosts who wanted material for the next show are losing their soup over it and some hard core fans outside of L.A. are snickering. Meanwhile, Kawhi is obviously good with the arrangement and for those who think he’s somehow harmed by harsh public opinion, you really don’t know the man because he went through far worse in San Antonio. His teammates at least publicly are respecting his process and Clippers fans starved for a championship have already gotten over it.
“Kawhi’s going to sit out games,” Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell said. “We can’t put that all on him. He’s got to take care of his body.”
Nobody was denied an entertaining game Wednesday, which went down to the final seconds before the Bucks salvaged a 129-124 win. Harrell and Lou Williams, both elevated to the starting lineup, combined for 68 points. The Clippers, as usual under Rivers, were scrappy all night, just like last season when they won 48 games without Kawhi or Paul George.
He feels great because of what we’ve been doing with him. Kawhi says he’s never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way. We have to do right by our players.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers
Could the Clippers have won with Kawhi? Perhaps, as they’re 0-2 when he doesn’t play. His defense was needed against the league’s No. 1 scoring team and Antetokounmpo, who sank four 3-pointers en route to 38 points. But again, this is Kawhi’s World and the Clippers are willing residents.
“He feels great because of what we’ve been doing with him,” Rivers said. “Kawhi says he’s never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way. We have to do right by our players.”
If it worked last season for Kawhi — and it was from every metric a smashing success for him to miss 22 regular-season games to preserve his body for the long haul — why change the blueprint? This strategy works for Kawhi (and by extension, the team he plays for). He averaged 39.1 minutes per game in the 2019 playoffs with Toronto and had energy in the final crucial moments of several of those 24 games. That’s all the folks in Toronto remember or care about.
“Obviously it’s better when everybody plays,” Rivers said. “But it’s an 82-game schedule and guys are going to miss games because of injury or injury prevention. That’s just the way it is.”
Sure, from an optics standpoint, the load management plague is something the league must stomach because such is life in the modern NBA. Star players have clout and the hammer and they’re running the show, realizing that the league is star-driven, much more than any other professional team sport. Their body is their moneymaker and, since franchises have so much invested in them, teams would rather be safe than sorry.
The only solution is to enhance the importance of the regular season by either reducing the number of games or the number of playoff spots, and don’t hold your breath on either happening.
The Clippers with Kawhi know what we all know: No matter how many games he sits for load management — let’s say, around a dozen — the Clippers will be in the playoffs anyway (health permitting) and that’s where their priorities lie, and rightly so. They’re serious about winning a championship and so is Kawhi.
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