Eric Gay/Associated Press
Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard was held out of the lineup a handful of times during the regular season for “load management” purposes, and he credits that approach for helping him be healthy enough to play in the 2019 NBA Finals.
“I don’t think I’d be playing right now if I would’ve tried to go through the season,” Leonard told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols (h/t TSN) ahead of Friday night’s Game 4.
According to the Sporting News‘ Sean Deveney, 14 of the 22 games Leonard sat out where classified as “load management.”
The 27-year-old is coming off a 2017-18 campaign that saw him make just nine appearances for the San Antonio Spurs due to a quad injury. Per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, a lack of trust between Leonard and the Spurs developed as the team allegedly did not buy he was too hurt to play—and that ultimately led to his trade to Toronto last offseason.
The Raptors, knowing the three-time All-Star can be a free agent this summer, have taken the cautious approach with Leonard all season. Not once did he play back-to-back days during the regular season. And it’s been hard to argue with the results.
Leonard established new career highs in both scoring (26.6 points per game) and rebounding (7.3) while playing 34.0 minutes per game. While Toronto (58-24) finished two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, it made it to the postseason with a healthy Leonard, which proved key.
The 2014 Finals MVP has elevated his game even further this postseason, averaging 30.9 points per game thus far. His play has helped his team defeat the Orlando Magic, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Bucks en route to leading the Raptors to their first-ever Finals berth. Now, they are just two victories away from capturing their first Larry O’Brien Trophy, as Leonard is averaging 29.0 points against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver revealed last month that he is willing to explore the idea of shortening the 82-game season as star players around the league have been healthy scratches for a number of regular-season games in recent years.