Resting Kawhi Leonard in January should reward Raptors in playoffs

Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet both scored 19 points in a 120-105 win for the Raptors over the Kings.

TORONTO — As a Toronto Raptors fan, what are you more interested in? The team winning an inconsequential mid-season game, 120-105, over the Sacramento Kings, an out-of-conference opponent they’ll only see again if something cataclysmically unprecedented occurs and the Kings not only qualify for the playoffs for the first time in a dozen seasons, but reach the NBA Finals? Or the fact that Kawhi Leonard missed a third consecutive game due to "load management," and is scheduled to miss a fourth Wednesday night when the Raptors play the Indiana Pacers?

If you answered the latter, good news — you agree with the Raptors organization and its approach to Leonard’s workload.

"It’s a medical decision from our medical team," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before Tuesday’s game, hinting at the obvious fact he’d much rather have Leonard playing than not. "It’s just a load management thing. I think he’s played, what, 35, 36 games now after playing nine a year ago? It’s just a chance to get him some extended rest."

In the grand scheme, Tuesday’s game was contested primarily out of obligation. Hey, it’s nice that the Raptors played one of their most cohesive games of the season, distributing shots up and down the lineup and getting double-figures scoring efforts from six separate players. It’s very encouraging that they continued the strong three-point shooting exhibited during Saturday’s trouncing of the Memphis Grizzlies, going 40 per cent (16 of 40) from distance. And it has to be a major relief that C.J. Miles looked like C.J. Miles for a third consecutive game, scoring 15 on 5-of-7 shooting, including 4-of-5 from range.

But, come April, when the Raptors begin what will be the most pivotal and intensely scrutinized playoff run in their franchise’s history, game No. 49 of 82 against Sacramento won’t matter. Leonard’s health, mindset, and ability to compete at his highest possible effectiveness? That will matter a great deal.

And that’s the point. That’s why, according to the Raptors, Leonard’s missing four consecutive games sandwiching Blue Monday, which isn’t only the most trying and arduous period of the Gregorian calendar year, but of the NBA regular season, as well.

"I’m concerned that our team’s ready and firing on all cylinders and healthy and has got bounce when they need to peak at the end of the year," Nurse said. "It’s not only Kawhi. It’s other guys. We’ll continue to manage their load. That’s half the reason we don’t have practice some days and don’t have shootaround some days. We’re trying to re-juice and re-energize and play the long game here a little bit."

For the conspiracy theorists: Nurse was asked directly Tuesday if Leonard is sitting out due to an injury and answered firmly in the negative. All you can do is take him at his word. Practically every full-time player in the league is carrying some sort of ailment at this point in the season, and where the line falls between being hurt and being injured is relative to each individual.

Now, Leonard was visibly labouring through a lower-body issue during the Raptors’ ridiculous, double-overtime victory over the Washington Wizards on Jan. 13. There was clearly something going on there. But it didn’t stop him from playing 45 minutes and posting a 33 per cent usage rate that day, and it didn’t stop him from playing 36 minutes with 29 per cent usage against the Boston Celtics two days later.

If anything, Leonard playing through a lower-half affliction in those two games should give the Raptors even more reason to be this cautious. It behooves them to actively avoid anything that could potentially worsen that damage. Is the team being awfully mysterious about the whole situation? Sure. But that’s what professional sports teams do in 2019, whether any of us like it or not. Organizations are intensely paranoid about giving up a competitive advantage, no matter how slight. And, if you consider it from their perspective, they really have little to gain from being transparent.

There’s a privacy matter at play, as well. It’s ultimately up to Leonard how much is shared about his physical condition, as it should be. It’s his body. And does Leonard strike you as the open-book type? If the Raptors are committed to doing everything possible to encourage Leonard to re-sign this summer, they ought to prioritize both his health and his privacy.

Plus, the thing about Leonard is that when he plays, he really plays. He came into Tuesday night fourth on the team in minutes (Kyle Lowry had only two more) despite missing a quarter of Toronto’s games. He leads the Raptors with a 30 per cent usage rate; he’s scored at least 20 points in each of his last 20 games. Leonard’s minutes aren’t like everyone else’s. And it’s not only a physiological matter.

"I think it does way more mentally for you than physically," the resurgent Miles said at Raptors practice on Monday, when asked about Leonard’s nights off. "I think the mental side of it is definitely not talked about enough as far as that rest. And you think about a guy like Kawhi, who, in every facet of the game has so much on his mind. What he’s playing through, the double teams, guarding the best guy — coming down the stretch, trying to make plays for everybody. I think [the rest] helps him a lot."

And while most players will enjoy an extended break next month during NBA’s all-star week, Leonard almost certainly will not. Unless he declines to attend Charlotte’s festivities, he’ll be consumed with travel, events, media obligations, and an entirely meaningless basketball exhibition with his fellow all-stars. It won’t be his most demanding week, but it will still carry a toll.

Look, playing 82 consecutive games of NBA basketball over six months isn’t the best way to prime an athlete for as many as four seven-game series come the playoffs. Especially 82 games played at the considerable pace and intensity the NBA features today.

But there are 82 games on the schedule, and teams pour a substantial amount of time and resources into learning how best to manage it. Behind every NBA roster, there is a team of health specialists dedicating their entire days to ensuring those 15 or so athletes are as physically and mentally prepared to compete as possible. If the Raptors believe the best thing for Leonard’s health and longevity is to sit out a week of game’s in mid-January, then so be it. They simply have more information, more expertise, and a more thorough understanding of what’s best for Leonard than we do.

And, as is often overlooked, the Raptors are in an extremely advantageous position to handle Leonard optimally because of how deep and talented their roster is. Toronto has been in either first or second in the Eastern Conference for the entirety of the season, and has gone 11-2 in games Leonard has missed. By virtue of being able to consistently win without him, the Raptors can manage Leonard’s workload much more effectively.

That’s a good thing. That’s an advantage the Raptors have over their competition. The Charlotte Hornets can’t afford to be as cautious with Kemba Walker. The Detroit Pistons can’t stomach having Blake Griffin take a week off.

Tuesday, Nurse said Leonard was "definitely going to play Friday in Houston." If he doesn’t? Feel free to spiral. For now, the process deserves to be trusted.

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