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Opinion

The Leonard load management conundrum and the cost of resting in the west

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Roar Rookie
6th January, 2020
6

When Kawhi Leonard texted Nick Nurse, “I’m going home” back in late 2019 the Los Angeles Clippers had just claimed victory in one of the most studied and intensely reported giant NBA free-agent chases in some time.

NBA players of Leonard’s calibre rarely become available, and to beat the storied Lakers franchise in a head-to-head duel – sorry, Toronto – only sweetened a fine moment for the seemingly rising Clippers organisation.

As the 2019-20 season plays out in typically dramatic fashion, would the excitement have been tempered if all Clippers stakeholders got only 60 games of Kawhi and a three-year deal with a player option? I know: surely you sign Kawhi regardless of his conditions and demands. However, the water is certainly getting murkier in the west.

The superstar player-team power balance that swung the player’s way when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010 is still shifting to this day. Leonard continues to exercise NBA superstar player power to its full extent. NBA player power through mobility is an evolving beast and a discussion for another time. This player power is a fine balance between self-preservation and wins and losses.

If you add a player to your roster and their exact value is their nightly contribution over 60 games as opposed to 82, your expected win tally inevitably reduces from original expectations. Even going at a 65-win pace – 0.800 per cent – the wins produced by Kawhi’s talent reduces to 48.

Kawhi Leonard fends off Jae Crowder

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

The fact is that Leonard is only going at 60-game pace, currently playing 28 of a possible 38 matches, or 73.6 per cent. With Leonard’s load management now reality and 60-game pace the norm rather than a reduction in predicated output, the Clippers outlook requires re-evaluating.

Commentary around the issue constantly refers to the fact that a championship will silence all doubters – and it will. Make no mistake: if the Clippers win the title, load management will be a buzz word across all the big four American sports for years if it isn’t already.

Two years, two championships, both won by deliberately missing meaningful games in order to physically preserve your body for action in May and June. It goes directly against the mantra of many elite athletes, like that espoused in Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality. Playing to win every night has long been seen as a respectable trait. The 2020 Clippers just want to win when it matters.

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The LA Clippers for the remainder of the 2020 regular season will be relying on a team built mainly of role players and bench stars surrounding Paul George. This squad will be required to pick up vital wins on the road and in back-to-back matches to make the difference between a first-round home series against Portland and a road series against the Rockets.

While many teams continue to live the 2019-20 regular season with a sense of excitement coupled with comparatively low expectations – for example, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns et cetera – the Clippers seem increasingly distracted and complicated by the enviable position they now find themselves in.

For years the Clippers have been a team similar in nature to those listed above, and for that reason the gambles taken in the 2019 off-season – four unprotected first-round picks plus Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Paul George – will make or break the upcoming era for the new-look LA.

Make no mistake about it, Kawhi Leonard is one the top five players in basketball when fully fit. A top-ten player efficiency rating, a top-ten scorer, versatile, a great defender, a reliable three-point shooter and an outrageously clutch mid-range pull-up game that squeaked the Raptors past the 76ers before proving too much for the weary Warriors. A two-time finals MVP. The man is legit.

However, the west is legit. The Lakers are legit. The Bucks are legit. This year is open and every top-ten talent in this league knows it.

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In a conference full of ‘dynamic duos’ the margin for error for the level of talent assembled on the Clippers roster is tighter than could be usually expected. When LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh famously joined in 2010 the NBA landscape was dramatically different. The Heat were allowed to fumble to 9-8 before recovering to 58-24 and going on in retrospect a half-decent play-off run, at least were it not for the notorious LeBron performances throughout the finals.

An inevitable slip up or extended period of poor form similar to above makes this feel this season may go in the same direction of the 2010 Heatles. However, it might cost the Clippers more than the one ring. Nothing creates change like poor performance, and the Clippers cannot afford change.

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The LA Clippers player management issues are further complicated by two factors: contracts and Inglewood.

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Steve Ballmer getting two of the world’s best professional basketball players to put ink to paper for the LA Clippers is an unbelievable coup. Getting both players guaranteed for only two years is now just the reality of the NBA. Players of this calibre in the current climate will rarely commit to longer.

One-year deals have become more prominent since 2014 thanks to the National Basketball Players Association getting such deals included in the current collective bargaining agreement, as pushed for by LeBron. In that 2014 off-season Kevin Durant, Wade and LeBron all signed one-year deals. Two-year deals with a player option would comparatively appear to be a long-term commitment, but the Clippers aren’t playing with house money.

If the Clippers end up in that Rockets first-round series and are eliminated, they will have one season full of rumours, leaked reports, ‘Woj bombs’ and a pool of viable suitors sniffing around their franchise players.

The reality is the LA Clippers have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard guaranteed to the end of the 2020-21 season. That’s 1.5 regular seasons, or approximately another 90 regular-season games from Leonard. Both players have moved twice in their prime and have shown no remorse in forcing their way to their desired location. This situation is more delicate then it appears.

LA Clippers have long been the ugly duckling in Los Angeles. Sharing a stadium with a 17-time NBA champion can’t be easy, especially if you are a no-time NBA champion. Hence Inglewood Basketball and Entertainment Centre. Described as a $1 billion dream, new conceptual images of the privately financed sports complex to be located in California were released in July 2019 to a generally stunned reaction.

When revealing the images Steve Ballmer stated, “We deserve to have a house of our oww … this building is going to be the number one basketball venue in the world”. Construction is believed to begin in 2021 before opening in 2024. It’s a bold move and a positive move, but it’s also a risky move.

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While everything the Clippers believe this stadium to be may be true, the timeline of its construction is awkward. With both players potentially becoming free agents in the summer of 2021, the dream could be over before the cement dries. If the Clippers struggle, players walk and a 31-year-old Anthony Davis is dominating at Staples. It doesn’t matter how beautiful Inglewood is because there won’t be many there.

Of all the positions the Clippers franchise have found themselves in over the years, from the complications of sharing Staples with the Lakers to the long play-off droughts and the Donald Sterling racism scandal, this is the biggest crossroads in their history.

The Clippers could win a three-peat, move into Inglewood, hang banners and retire the jerseys of both Leonard and George. Or the Clippers could lose both stars in 2021 for nothing, not win a title, not make the finals and have started construction on Inglewood.

Right now the Clippers have a game against the Warriors this upcoming Saturday. I don’t know if Leonard will play. The Clippers probably don’t know much more than me.

All the strategic decisions to raise the profile of the Clippers have been gambles and probably necessary wagers, but amid all the anticipation, will it ultimately be load management that derails the Clippers’ orchestrated rise to NBA dominance?

What are the Clippers really risking resting in the west?