All season long, the Toronto Raptors have given Kawhi Leonard games off for “load management.” Early on, it appeared like they’d only be doing it for back-to-backs, and he’d eventually be playing every night when he’s healthy. But as the season went on, Leonard not only continued to sit out one end of every back-to-back, but he also regularly sat other games. To be clear, the team is deciding to sit Leonard out, rather than Leonard choosing to miss these games himself. By all accounts, it’s been their choice to rest him, though that doesn’t mean that Leonard objects to it.
There’s been growing frustration among a fraction of the Raptors’ fan base regarding Leonard sitting out so many games. After all, the team’s chemistry hasn’t been great, despite showing flashes of brilliance at times. Almost everyone would agree that the Raptors haven’t gotten close to reaching their ceiling for an extended stretch.
Furthermore, Toronto is still integrating some new additions from last month, particularly Marc Gasol. With Gasol having yet to make the impact that the team has hoped, it seems crucial for the Raptors to allow their best players to get as many reps as possible together. In an ideal situation for Toronto, Gasol would be at his peak in the playoffs next to Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam to close most games, even if Gasol doesn’t overtake Serge Ibaka as the starter full-time.
So it makes sense that some Raptor fans aren’t thrilled about Leonard sitting out. The aforementioned lineup, which is likely Toronto’s highest-upside group, has played just 62 minutes as a unit in only eight games together (And if the ankle injury that Lowry suffered in Monday night’s game keeps him out for a while, those five won’t play more minutes together anytime soon). But on balance, it’s more important for Leonard to sit out some games.
Prioritizing Leonard’s Health
Numerous reports by ESPN’s Michael C. Wright and Adrian Wojnarowski indicate that when Leonard’s relationship with the San Antonio Spurs deteriorated, it was because he no longer trusted the team regarding his health. He felt like the team had misdiagnosed and rushed him back from his quad injury. Their rapport was broken after that, eventually leading to the Spurs trading Leonard last summer.
Leonard has played about 34 minutes per game and suited up for 51 of the team’s 71 games so far, after playing just 23 minutes per game in nine contests during his injury-riddled 2017-18 season. At last Wednesday’s practice, Leonard talked about how he’s feeling about his health at this point in the season.
“We’ve been doing a great job of making sure that nothing flares up or gets out of control,” Leonard said. “It’s just been great. I’m just happy that I’m able to play.”
Leonard continued: “It’s amazing. I feel good and we have something to look forward to.”
Leonard sounds pleased with how the Raptors have handled his workload. While there’s no guarantee he’ll re-sign in Toronto, it certainly must help that the Raptors have prioritized his health. After all, at his opening press conference with the team, Leonard said that one of his main goals for the rest of his career is to stay healthy.
Regular-Season Success Without Leonard
While some may have concerns that the Raptors struggle without Leonard – such as their somewhat recent losses to Detroit on March 10 and Orlando on Feb. 24 without him – the Raptors have generally been fine, with or without their superstar. They’re 16-4 this season with Leonard out of the lineup – a better winning percentage than their overall mark.
There may be concern that Leonard is rusty after he sits out games, and it’s sometimes evident when he’s still trying to get his legs under him. But on the season, the numbers don’t back up the eye test with the “rest versus rust” debate regarding Leonard. In the 14 games Leonard has played immediately after sitting out – whether due to rest or the few games that he’s missed because of soreness or other minor injuries – Leonard’s stats have been almost identical to his season numbers. He’s scored and rebounded a little less, but hardly to the point where it would make a difference. The team has also been fine, winning 10 of those 14 games – right on par with their season-long winning percentage.
Leonard’s rest days haven’t hurt the team’s regular-season standing in any way, even if they’ve slowed the development of chemistry. But even if resting Leonard had hurt the team’s record, Leonard and Lowry staying healthy may be the single most important factors for Toronto’s hopes of postseason success. That’s what matters most.
Playoffs Over Everything
Let’s also remember this: The playoffs are more important than anything else. In past years, Raptors fans have fallen into the trap of caring too much about the regular season. After all, just last year, they saw a 59-win team get swept in the second round (It stung a little more that Fred VanVleet hurt his shoulder in the final game of the regular season, came back when he wasn’t completely healthy and then missed a shot that could’ve won Game 1 of their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even so, VanVleet was a sixth man who likely wouldn’t have rested in the regular season anyway).
LeBron James isn’t in Toronto’s way this year, but the top of the Eastern Conference is the best it’s been in a long time. The Raptors need to peak at the right time, and that time is April and May – and June, if they’re lucky.
The whole point of acquiring Leonard was to add a superstar, a true top-10 level player who can perform in the playoffs better than any star the Raptors have ever had. Leonard said in early March that the 82-game regular season is just practice, and the “playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.” Despite his 27 points per game on nearly 61 percent true shooting this season, Leonard seems to have another gear that he hasn’t yet reached. If that’s the case, then Toronto had better hope that Leonard is healthy and able to reach that gear in the postseason.
There’s no foolproof solution to preventing injuries, but if Toronto’s sports science experts believe that load management is their best chance at ensuring that Leonard remains healthy, then that’s the way to go. A healthy Leonard in the playoffs will be more than enough to quiet anyone criticizing the strategy now.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com. Stats are accurate before games played on March 20.