After his year-long sabbatical in foreign parts, America has noticed that Kawhi Leonard has changed. And America doesn’t like it.
Leonard ditched Canada for his hometown, Los Angeles, over the summer. The separation was about as amicable as these things get.
There was no public cursing as he went out the door. No one in the Raptors organization is slagging him behind his back, but there is some ruefulness about the process. Though Leonard went through the proper motions, Toronto never had a shot. The organization didn’t see that until it was already over.
No one wants to see Leonard fail, exactly. But it would be nice if it were proved he’d have been better off here.
On that score – and it is still very early days – things are looking good (i.e. bad).
Leonard returned to the United States newly minted as the NBA’s ideal winner. He’d taken a team from Canada, for God’s sake, and turned it into a champion. He’d done it largely by himself.
What people hadn’t taken into consideration was how he’d done it.
Leonard was a part-time employee during the 2018-19 regular season. He took a quarter of his games off, most with no explanation.
The Raptors created the term “load management” to excuse these vacation days. The NBA responded with a “Yeah, yeah, whatever. We told you only to use this number if it’s an emergency”.
Leonard’s absence was permitted because no one in the NBA knows or cares what is happening up here. For years, the Raptors might as well have been playing on the moon.
They had next-to-no national TV commitments in the United States. No Christmas Day games. No prime-time tipoffs in the postseason. They were functionally invisible back at NBA HQ.
If Leonard wanted to spend the whole season poolside in Boca Raton, the only people who would notice were Raptors fans. And Raptors fans weren’t bothered. They wanted Leonard fit for the playoffs. How he managed it was his business. Even the media refused to pick up the story.
That situation has changed. Somewhere between his “fun guy” intro and his T-1000 routine in the playoffs, Leonard has become the most fascinating man in the league. He was always good, but is now recognized as basketball’s most reliable closer. He’s leap-frogged the Jameses, Currys and Durants in the U.S. imagination.
In an age of carefully curated public personalities, Leonard’s lack of one seems revolutionary. He’s become the Thomas Pynchon of pro sports. Completely inscrutable, but everyone wants to pretend they understand him.
Leonard presumed he could move to the U.S.'s second-biggest media market, take a wing-dinger of a contract, create an outrageous amount of tumult around the manner of his arrival (Batman with his hand-picked Robin, Paul George) and then just continue on as he had. Apparently not.
Acquiring Leonard turned the L.A. Clippers into must-see TV. The team will appear in two, and sometimes three, nationally televised games each week. The next one happens Monday, against the visiting Raptors. Leonard gets the main Christmas Day time slot – 8 p.m. ET against the Lakers.
In moving to L.A., Leonard took a squadron of camp aides with him. They oversee his physical well-being. He is more of a subcontractor of the Clippers than an employee. As such, he sets his own hours.
He has continued his Toronto practice of skipping a game when the team plays on consecutive nights. On Wednesday, he took a pass on a fairly big occasion – Clippers versus Bucks (i.e. Kawhi versus Giannis).
Everyone freaked out. The U.S. press piled in as though he’d missed work because he was hungover. It became a great big story.
Even the most pragmatic members of the broadcast media were outraged. No wonder. If the stars don’t care about the regular season, then why should the fans? That is not a good precedent for the TV business.
The Clippers tried the same load-management line the Raptors had sneaked by easily. It no longer works. The league fined the team US$50,000 for sitting a healthy star.
The money doesn’t matter. Leonard makes nearly 10 times that amount per outing, whether he plays. But the signal it sends does. Load management is no longer kosher.
By that point, the Clippers had figured out an important life lesson – that it isn’t what you tell people, it’s how you tell them. “Load management” became “managing a knee injury.” The two things are the same (if there’s no injury load to manage, there’d be no need to manage it). But one sounds better. The NBA agreed.
It’s working for now. It may not work for long.
You can see other teams and coaches losing their patience. The Clippers play a back-to-back next week – at Houston and New Orleans. The Houston game is nationally televised. It would be very like Leonard to skip that one, just to make a point. We’ll see how that goes over.
After the New York Knicks’ R.J. Barrett played 41 minutes the other night, his coach was asked to justify the expenditure of energy. He was not best pleased.
“We gotta get off this load-management crap,” David Fizdale said. “The kid’s 19 years old. Drop it.”
Which guarantees no one will drop it.
You can see the NBA’s double-bind here. The league is paid a lot of money by broadcasters. Broadcasters who expect to be broadcasting the biggest stars from the biggest teams on a nightly basis. Leonard is now the biggest in both regards. What if the rest of the talent starts getting notions?
Teams expect the rules will be enforced evenly. No one cared what Leonard did in Toronto. But now that everyone’s attention has been focused on him, it looks as though he’s getting special treatment.
Thus far, Leonard’s said nothing and felt no need to do so. The man is a stump – immovable. The last time a team tried to force him to do something, he essentially quit. If the NBA gets on top of him here, things could get unpredictable in a hurry.
One thing we do know about Leonard is that he doesn’t like fuss. He wants to be left alone to do his work. He had that freedom in Toronto. Now, in L.A., not so much.
You can never know what’s going through Leonard’s mind. But one does wonder if he’s beginning to consider whether getting exactly what you want is all it’s cracked up to be.