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New Orleans Pelicans 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the New Orleans Pelicans, who are looking to prove the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo can be successful.

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Entering a pivotal year for the franchise, the Pelicans are a fascinating study in the true power of stardom in the NBA. Their biggest names are some of the most recognizable in the league: They have likely the game’s starriest frontcourt in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a near-max-level point guard in Jrue Holiday squarely in his prime.

At the same time, their depth after these three is almost startlingly weak, particularly on the wings. With Cousins able to walk for nothing at the end of the season and whispers about Davis’ future free agency starting to grow louder, GM Dell Demps needs the group he’s put together this season to gel and put forth a product that encourages the big stars about the future – and if not, the Pelicans may have to contemplate life without at least one.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

What we saw of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis a year ago wasn’t awesome, and it’s not like the Pelicans had the money to add a whole lot to their roster over the summer to make massive improvements. Still, arguably the two best big men in the league are on the same team, and it’s hard not to see some measure of promise in that. That’s not going to stop the Anthony Davis trade rumors, unfortunately, but the better they play the less likely it is they’ll have to deal with that particular drama this year. Bottom line: New Orleans needs to make the playoffs. It’s time for them to make that happen, and that means finishing at least third in Southwest to sneak into the bottom of the Western Conference’s postseason picture. Anything less and Davis’ time in the Big Easy really could be running out.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

While the rest of the NBA is zigging towards playing smaller and faster, the New Orleans Pelicans are zagging the opposite direction with a huge frontline featuring Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. These two talented big men form arguably the most interesting and unique frontcourt duo in the NBA, but last year’s results didn’t give us reason to believe it’s a match made in heaven. Finding out how to maximize the considerable skill sets of Davis and Cousins is an imperative task for Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry. If Gentry can find a way to maximize his talented frontcourt tandem, the Pelicans could exceed all reasonable expectations this upcoming season. However, wing depth and perimeter shooting are going to be issues that will likely plague this team unless they pull off some serious deals to bring in more talent on the wing.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

As far as top-end talent goes, the Pelicans can compete with just about anyone. They have the most talented frontcourt in the league with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, plus a guy in Jrue Holiday whose talents complement the two big men very well. That trifecta can hold up to nearly any in the league outside Golden State and a couple other markets – but the question marks start immediately after that. With Solomon Hill’s recent injury that could keep him out for much of the year, the Pelicans are now dangerously thin on the wing – guys like Jordan Crawford and Ian Clark may have to play important roles there. The acquisition of Rajon Rondo after Holiday had already re-signed seemed curious, and still does. Depth in the frontcourt behind Davis and Cousins is a question mark. With some decent injury luck for their big three and some solid cohesion, this could absolutely be a playoff team. But the floor is also very low, especially if any of the three has to miss any time or Cousins becomes volatile like he has in the past. We’ll pencil them in for third in the Southwest for now, but they could easily be fourth or even fifth if things go badly.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

When you look at Anthony Davis’ numbers, one would figure it would only be a matter of time until the Pelicans take flight and find themselves out of the doldrums in the Western Conference—especially with a talent like DeMarcus Cousins added to the fold.

As he entered the final year of his contract, Cousins is the player to watch this season in New Orleans. It’s amazing to think that a player of his talent has yet to play in a single playoff game. If things break right in the Big Easy this season, though, a postseason berth may be possible. With Zach Randolph headed to Sacramento and Tony Allen not having re-signed with the Grizzlies, the door does seem to be a bit ajar for the Pelicans. That, however, will depend upon their ability to stay healthy, and Solomon Hill’s torn hamstring isn’t a positive omen.

Still, with Ian Clark and Rajon Rondo added to the fold, the Pelicans have brought in a few winners. A re-signed Jrue Holiday should also contribute positively to what these guys have going on this season, as well. They’ll be pulling up the rear out West, but if they manage to leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Southwest, they’ll be in the fight for the playoffs. I just wouldn’t bet on it at this point.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

After trading for DeMarcus Cousins halfway through last season, the New Orleans Pelicans are hoping a full offseason and training camp together can mesh arguably the top two bigs in the game enough to warrant their first trip to the playoffs in three years.

With a healthy Jrue Holiday and some chemistry between Cousins and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans could be in a position to make some noise this season. However, if the two former Kentucky big men don’t produce what New Orleans is hoping they will on the court this season, it will be interesting to see how Cousins handles his free agency next summer.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

This one is a dead heat between Cousins and Davis, but since the Brow gets the nod in our next section, Boogie gets his time in the spotlight now. Cousins was a pretty similar player last year after being traded to New Orleans, posting similar shooting numbers while seeing some of his midrange game move over to Davis, replaced by a few more looks near the hoop.

Logic would suggest some staggering of minutes between the two to leave at least one on the court as often as possible, but this might be tough – the Pellies were destroyed last year in the minutes Cousins played without Davis, and Boogie’s own numbers showed a huge gap. He was lethal from three with Davis out there, and was able to draw more fouls and average higher rates in nearly everything across the board. These two will look to improve their on-court partnership even more with a full offseason (they trained together at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas over the summer), but how they play separately, and particularly while Cousins is the lone star on the floor, is also cause for concern.

Top Defensive Player: Anthony Davis

There was a time when Davis’ defensive potential widely eclipsed his actual value there, but the last couple years have mostly put that to rest. Davis was one of the league’s 10 most valuable defensive players last season, per ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and he’s become far more than a freak athlete who blocks a lot of shots. His timing has really improved along with his ability to be that anchor a defense needs. A full season of Cousins in town should ostensibly remove just enough of his offensive burden for him to perhaps chase some defensive honors if things go well.

Top Playmaker: Jrue Holiday

There’s a temptation to say newcomer Rajon Rondo here, and Rondo is likely still the better passer in a vacuum. But “playmaker” and “passer” aren’t the same thing, and especially for a team that looks likely to have spacing concerns all over the place, Rondo might not have the kind of success some expect while he’s on the floor. It will be very hard for him to generate consistently good looks for himself, and defenses know they can play his passing lanes and dare him to shoot the ball.

Holiday, on the other hand, has the chops as a scorer from multiple areas of the court to keep the defense honest. As nearly a 37 percent career three-point shooter, teams can’t simply sag away from him and clog things up when someone like Davis or Cousins has the ball. He’s posted solid passing figures for several years in a row, and seems to have put some of his worst health concerns behind him (fingers crossed). He’s also a far more consistent defender than Rondo at this point, which matters for his ability to stay on the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Anthony Davis

Especially for a big man, Davis’ 42 percent from the field in clutch time last year actually represents a very solid number, and one of the best on the team. He’s able to play both one-on-one and as part of the two-man game, and with another brute in Cousins around to soak up help defenders and provide a solid secondary option, look for much of the crunch-time offense to flow through the frontcourt (just like the rest of the offense).

The Unheralded Player: E’Twaun Moore

Moore is a limited player in certain areas, but as one of just a few guys on the roster who can credibly play at least one wing spot, he also fills an important role that the Pelicans badly need: Spacing. Moore has shot 37 percent and 45 percent from three over the last two years respectively, and he’ll be one of the few guys New Orleans can rely on to keep the defense honest while their primary cogs work.

Best New Addition: Tony Allen

On the flip side of that coin is Allen, whose signing for one year was reported Monday. Allen is nothing close to a spacing threat, but he’ll step in immediately as the team’s top wing stopper. He may not quite have the legs left in him to make the overall impact Davis does defensively, but his addition all but guarantees that the Pelicans will have an above-average defense, and likely a top-10 unit.

-Ben Dowsett

WHO WE LIKE

1. The Frontcourt

As we noted above, there are definitely some concerns when only Cousins is on the floor without Davis. When they play together, though, no team in the league truly has the personnel to effectively guard them. Cousins sees his three-point rate and efficiency skyrocket with another post behemoth sharing the court with him, and the Pelicans were a solid playoff team based on per-possession figures when they played together last year. The first month or two of this year will be huge for building their chemistry.

2. Healthy Jrue Holiday

After years of struggling with his health, Holiday finally was able to stay on the court last season. He missed a chunk to start the year, but that wasn’t an injury – he was caring for his wife. After that, Jrue would play in all but three games for the Pelicans, shooting a career-high from the field and showing off the kind of high-level defense that makes him such an attractive player. He’s the perfect complement to a Davis-Cousins frontcourt, and the Pelicans need another healthy year from him after signing him to a big contract this summer.

3. Darren Erman

After coming aboard as an assistant with head coach Alvin Gentry to start the 2015-16 season, it took Erman – a defensive whiz who is well-respected around the league – a full season to leave his mark. The Pelicans were bad defensively in his first year, but took a giant leap into the league’s top 10 last year after a year to digest his concepts. They did so with arguably only a few true plus defenders on the roster, and mostly through a solid scheme with smart tenets. Some have labeled Erman the next big thing as an NBA head coach, but while he’s in this role, expect the Pelicans to play smart, disciplined defense.

4. Tony Allen

He doesn’t necessarily solve some of their spacing issues, but Allen was the best of a relatively limited bunch late in free agency. He fills a need for bodies on the wing and should still check in as an elite-level perimeter defender, the kind of guy who will take the toughest matchups every night. He’ll also provide a bit of additional veteran know-how as a former member of the Grit n Grind Grizzlies.

-Ben Dowsett

SALARY CAP 101

The Pelicans invested heavily in Jrue Holiday this summer. Their other primary free agent acquisitions include Rajon Rondo, Darius Miller and Ian Clark, triggering a hard cap of $125.3 million in the process. Prior to trading Quincy Pondexter to the Chicago Bulls, the Pelicans were very close to that cap (including unlikely incentives the team may or may not owe to Holiday). The team still has a little bit of wiggle room to fill out a roster but they may not be able to use much of their remaining spending tools that include $2.2 million of their Room Exception, their full $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception and three trade exceptions ($3.9 million, $3.5 million and $2.1 million) at their disposal.

Next summer, the Pelicans will not be under the projected salary cap of $102 million, even if DeMarcus Cousins leaves as a free agent. That’s a loss the team won’t be able to replenish with a Mid-Level Exception. New Orleans may have to find a way to improve via trade, although they don’t have much to offer on that front outside of their star players in Anthony Davis, Cousins and Holiday. The franchise needs the Cousins/Davis pairing to work, enough to entice Cousins to re-sign long-term.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The frontcourt is a relatively obvious strength for this team, with Davis and Cousins backed up by Alexis Ajinca, a solid third big. Guard also at least has several capable bodies present – Holiday first, with guys like Rondo, Clark and Moore also in tow. The Pelicans will have some expected continuity on their side with Cousins able to spend the summer working with his teammates, and this could be valuable. There are also basically zero fit or role questions present in New Orleans: Everyone knows what’s expected of them, and there shouldn’t be any kind of an adjustment period in that respect.

-Ben Dowsett

WEAKNESSES

Beyond their top three players, this is a dangerously thin team depth-wise. They’ve got bodies in the guard rotation, as we noted above, but Holiday is the only truly reliable name on that list at this point – if the injury bug struck him again at any point, the Pelicans would be in huge trouble there. They’re even thinner on the wings, where guys like Moore and Allen will be asked to play major roles. Hill’s injury really hurt here. The Pelicans have the top-end talent to hang with just about anyone, but even a single significant injury to one of their primaries will make depth a major problem right away.

-Ben Dowsett

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is what the Pelicans have done over the last few years, and particularly this year, enough to keep their star-studded frontcourt interested in staying?

Cousins can go elsewhere after this season, and the Brow Free Agency Watch has already begun in earnest despite three years still left on his contract (plus a player option for a fourth, though he’s likely to decline this). Behind these two and Holiday, the Pelicans have very little going for them in a team-building sense. They didn’t send a huge amount to Sacramento for Cousins, but their only semi-blue chip youngster, Buddy Hield, was part of the package. Losing one of the two would be a big problem, and eventually losing both would be devastating for the franchise.

So while the results for this season obviously matter and clearly tie in with the overall theme, there’s an eye to the future as well. If the team underperforms to start the year and isn’t in the realistic playoff picture, they’ll have to consider what they might get in return for Cousins if he looks unlikely to re-sign. In a broader sense, the ticking clock will only get louder on Davis if the team isn’t able to take significant steps forward this season after giving up assets for Cousins at the deadline last year. It’s a huge year in New Orleans.

-Ben Dowsett

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NBA

NBA Daily: Choosing Philadelphia’s Backup Point Guard

With both Raul Neto, Trey Burke and Josh Richardson playing well in the absence of Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers will have a decision to make at backup point guard. Quinn Davis breaks down what each can bring to the table.

Quinn Davis

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Early in the Philadelphia 76ers’ game against the Charlotte Hornets, Raul Neto was tasked with chasing Terry Rozier through numerous pick-and-rolls on the defensive end. Neto — who head coach Brett Brown called the team’s best defensive player in their game against the Utah Jazz last week — held his own. 

Neto was moved into the starting lineup after Ben Simmons sprained his right AC joint, and the fifth-year guard has been up to the task. While his defense has helped him become a rotational fixture, Neto has also kept the offense humming along and the team is boasting a net rating of plus-5.5 with him on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His turnover rate has been a tad high, but he is shooting efficiently and moving the ball. 

He has the experience and ability to make the right pass. Here he finds Furkan Korkmaz on the wing for an open three after Gary Harris helps too hard on the rolling Kyle O’Quinn.

Plays like this might not seem very complicated, but it is a facet of the game that has been lacking in the 76ers’ offense. These simple pick-and-roll plays are not viable when opposing defenses are comfortable dipping under screens. 

In the past, there was no change of pace offensively when Brown went to his backup point guard. Last season, both T.J. McConnell and Markelle Fultz, when healthy, were not respected enough to command the kind of defense Neto will see. 

While Neto has played well, the 76ers brought in a second player to compete for the backup point guard role this season in Trey Burke. Burke, who saw his first action of the season on Friday against the Denver Nuggets, has also been very effective.

In his 37 minutes this season, the 76ers have a net rating of plus-15.6, per Cleaning the Glass. A lot of this success has come in transition, where the Sixers have scored 1.38 points per transition play with Burke running the point.

Burke’s speed is underrated. Here he turns on the jets after grabbing a loose ball, opening up an easy layup for James Ennis.

Having Burke as the backup point guard could boost a transition game that the 76ers will need to generate consistent offense. Simmons is, of course, not too shabby in transition either, so having a second point guard to come in and provide that end-to-end ability would be a nice boost.

While Burke is not quite the defender or passer that Neto is, his edge in speed and shot creation ability off the dribble makes this a very tough decision when Simmons returns to the lineup. Burke does tend to dribble quite a bit and may wander from the fundamentals of the offense, but the ability to get buckets may trump any concerns in those areas.

There is, of course, the possibility of playing one of these two guards in the same backcourt as Simmons, leaving room for both to play. Basketball Insiders asked Brown about this postgame, but Philadelphia’s head coach seemed to be leaning away from that idea.

“You’d doubt it,” Brown said. “I feel like there are outliers in every game. For example, tonight I went with Kyle (O’Quinn) and Al for a chunk of time. It would have to be under funny circumstances. But the fact that it’s possible because they both have played well, is exciting.”

Brown was asked a follow-up question after that response, regarding how Josh Richardson fits into the backup point guard equation. Brown would not rule him out either.

“We’re finding our way. We have different options. I think when you heard me use the phrase horses for courses, it’s based on who we play and who’s playing well,” Brown said.

It would make sense for Brown to evaluate as the season goes on and make decisions based on matchups. Brown has noted in seasons past that he likes to break the NBA schedule into thirds and evaluate his team in each of those 27-game chunks.  

Richardson’s defensive prowess and ability to guard multiple positions makes him a valuable option at the position. He also had a very nice game Sunday, tallying 11 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in the win. Brown made sure to praise the guard after the game.

“He’s wiry, active, gangly, at times you’re not sure which direction he’s going to go offensively,” said Brown. “He can make plays defensively. I think he’s got a motor that lets him play hard incredibly frequently. It’s hard to maintain that tenacity and energy with anybody. I’m surprised he actually has an endurance level that I see.”

It is worth noting that Richardson began the season running point when Simmons sat. When Embiid was suspended, the shortened rotation allowed Brown to experiment a little with Neto in that role.

The most likely scenario is that this becomes a backup point guard by committee. Richardson will be used against teams with very talented backcourts to maximize the defensive presence on the court. Burke and Neto will be used when the team is in need of a little more offensive creation or transition burst.

It’s also possible that one of these three separates themselves and takes hold of the role. Burke has been impressive in his stints, but only 37 minutes is not enough to make a judgment either way.

This subplot will likely be one of many that make up the story of the 76ers’ rotation this season. It will be exciting to watch it unfold.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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