Kawhi Leonard has been superhuman these playoffs, scoring over 30 points on 12 different occasions over the last two months. He’s been, simply put, a basketball machine, and he’s on the cusp of toppling yet another dynasty after putting up 36 at Golden State to go up 3-1 in the series.
He’s been dominant, but it wasn’t so long ago we all questioned if he would perform anywhere near the level we’re used to after sitting out all of last year with a quad injury. The Raptors clearly held that same concern, holding Leonard out of 22 games over the course of the year in an effort to save him for when the games mattered most. And it worked! They’re only one game away from their first-ever NBA championship. The gamble paid off for Masai Ujiri. But taking a step back, the Raptors’ success employing “load management” as a way to save their star for the playoffs will have an impact that goes far beyond Toronto’s first title.
The idea of resting stars in unimportant games has been around in all sports forever, but it usually comes at the end of the season, and no one really minded. Recently, though, teams have begun resting their stars on their own schedule, and if that coincides with a primetime game, then so be it. That alone will impact a variety of aspects of the game, and especially so in a star-driven league like the NBA. Network ratings take a hit when the news comes out an hour beforehand that the main star will be resting. The betting lines change drastically just before the game in such situations, affecting thousands of bettors and betting services, an important factor to note as sports betting becomes more and more prominent throughout the league.
Perhaps the most significant impact comes in the form of the fans who bought tickets to go to the game. For a meaningless game in November, there are thousands of fans willing to buy tickets to see their favorite players. Every sports league is currently struggling to continue to find ways to inspire fans to drop the dough to get tickets and make the trek to their arenas or stadiums instead of just watching from the comfort of their home. That isn’t to say fans aren’t going to games, but as the home entertainment setup advances and ticket prices continue to rise, there will eventually be more reasons to not go to a live event than to attend. One could even argue that’s already the case.
As load management becomes more prominent, it’s hard to imagine fans taking the leap of faith that their team won’t rest their best player during any regular season game. The league has already run into trouble with the idea of load management, even going so far as to fine Gregg Popovich for resting all of his stars ahead of a marquee matchup with the Miami Heat in 2012. But that doesn’t seem like a true solution to this problem. There may not even be one.
Most NBA fans would like to have the highest quality of play possible during the biggest times of the year, and every fan would prefer to have their star at 100% going into April than to see them get banged up in February. But it costs the league and the fans who do decide to take that leap of faith, and find themselves disappointed after dropping a good chunk of money to watch a non-competitive game without the star power that drove them to even consider the purchase in the first place.
Like most things, changes won’t happen all at once. We won’t see every star, injury history or no, miss 20 games a year to save up for the playoffs. But as it becomes more common, it becomes a bigger problem for the league and the teams that make it up. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.