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Can the Atlanta Hawks Keep Their Team Together This Offseason?

The Hawks have been the NBA’s darlings this season. Can they keep this team together for the long haul?

Nate Duncan

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When word began to leak out about the NBA’s new television deal late on Sunday night, October 5, the focus immediately turned to the league’s free agent landscape.  Cap dorks immediately began feverish calculations. The eventual conclusion is that the salary cap could rise to as much as $90 million for the 2016-17 season, when over $2 billion per season in TV money will line the league’s coffers.  While reports have indicated that the NBA has engaged the players’ union in talks to “smooth” the impact of the new deal over successive seasons, it now appears that the players are unwilling to acquiesce to such a scenario.  It now appears that the summer of 2016 will be a free agent free-for-all unmatched in league annals.

But for those who follow the league closely, contracts signed in the 2015 offseason could have nearly the same intrigue despite a comparatively modest projected increase from $63.065 million to $67.4 million.  A number of converging factors make this summer absolutely fascinating.  One, of course, is that looming 2016 offseason.  Maximum contracts are delineated as a percentage of the salary cap at the time they are signed, but do not adjust upward based on a rising cap in subsequent seasons.*  With the cap set to rise by almost a third in 2016, max contracts signed in 2015 could look relatively cheap in subsequent years.

*With an exception covered in the bullets below.

Now consider that nearly half the league could have $15 million or more in cap room, with many others possessing a realistic possibility for a significant contract.  While that is a lot of teams by historical norms, it pales in comparison to 2016, in which pretty much the entire league will have huge cap room.  That year, the competition between teams along with the larger maximum contracts will result in a colossal feeding frenzy. Teams are no dummies–they realize they will likely get a lot more bang for their buck this offseason than the following year.

All of these factors could serve to inflate the 2015 market by quite a bit more over past years than the projected $4 million jump in the cap alone would indicate. And that could make this summer rather difficult for a current league darling, the Atlanta Hawks.  Hawks GM in absentia Danny Ferry deserves plaudits for having built such a flexible and competitive roster.  But the price of that flexibility is the 2015 free agency of two starters and a key reserve: Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic.*  All were wisely signed to two-year contracts in the Hawks’ landmark summer of 2013.*  With Millsap 28, Carroll 27 and Antic 31, the Hawks were locking these players up through what were likely the best years they had left while avoiding overpaying for possible decline years.  Now though, Atlanta must pay the price for those players outperforming their modest deals.**

*Ferry signed Millsap and Carroll for less starting salary and half the years that outgoing free agent Josh Smith received in Detroit.

**Atlanta would surely love to talk contract extension with all three to prevent their hitting the open market, but the 2011 CBA prohibits extensions on contracts any shorter than four years, while preventing raises of more than 107.5 percent from a player’s previous salary.

Here is what the Hawks’ 2015 offseason could look like, including cap holds for Millsap, Carroll and Antic.*

*We will assume the remainder of the Hawks’ free agents can be renounced when appropriate, extinguishing their cap holds.

 

Hawks Current Cap Holds

Under that scenario, they are currently projected to have over $9 million in cap space even with those three free agents’ cap holds.  Add in a cap hold from their first-round pick, which will probably be about number 11 since it can be swapped with the Brooklyn Nets, and that drops to around $7 million. But due to the short-term contracts signed by Millsap and Carroll, that number is not as delicious as it might seem.  Were they completing three-year deals, the Hawks could sign outside free agents up to the cap, then re-sign Millsap and Carroll for anything up to the maximum salary using the full Larry Bird exception, which allows teams to go over the cap to sign their own free agents.  But since Millsap and Carroll have only been with the Hawks two years, Atlanta is limited to the Early Bird exception if they want to go over the cap to re-sign them.  If Atlanta is over the cap when they re-sign them, that exception limits them to the higher of 175 percent of their prior salary or the Estimated Average Player Salary, likely around $5.7 million in 2015-16.  They also may only offer a four-year deal, rather than five years if the players had full Bird rights.

Millsap is a particularly difficult case as a 30-year-old coming off consecutive All-Star appearances.  He has bucked the aging trend for shorter power forwards, having his two best seasons at 28 and 29 by adding significantly to his skill level since his arrival in the A.  His abilities to shoot threes, take bigger players to the basket on closeouts and post up effectively are essential to the Hawks’ beautiful offense.  Defensively, he is highly underrated after garnering a reputation as a defensive liability playing next to Al Jefferson in Utah.  All told, Millsap ranks 16th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, adding 5.07 points per 100 possession to the Hawks’ bottom line.  His well-rounded game is especially rare as one of only five players in the league recording both an offensive and defensive RPM above 2.00.

Right now, it is clear Millsap is a premium player, although he likely benefits immensely from the spaced floor and ball movement of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Nevertheless, if he keeps up this performance the rest of the year, he would likely be worth his individual maximum of around $19 million were we only considering next season. Unfortunately, the age-related decline Millsap has successfully postponed to date remains an issue for anything longer than a one-year deal, which free agents of his caliber rarely sign.  So what is an appropriate deal with Millsap?

Remember that Marcin Gortat re-signed for a five-year, $60 million contract last offseason as a 30-year-old with a lower cap and less certainty about the influx of new TV money.  While that may have been a bit of an overpay by the Wizards with the length of the contract,* it probably was not too far above market value.  Millsap, of course, is a much better player than Gortat.

*Gortat hasn’t even been closing a lot of games for Randy Wittman in Washington, although it is possible the Wizards are not using him properly.

The most Millsap can glean via the Early Bird Exception is $16.6 million.  If the Hawks were to offer him a four-year deal starting at that amount, it would be a very fair offer considering the likelihood of decline in the later years.  Depending on the negotiations, the Hawks could possibly allow for a declining salary, opening up more room to add pieces in the upcoming years.  This would result in a four-year deal totaling around $60 million.  If Millsap demands a starting salary of more than $16.6 million, the Hawks would have to use cap space to sign him.

The timing and amount of his re-signing could also prove crucial due to the delicate situation with Carroll.  Unless Millsap re-signs for a starting salary less than his $12.35 million cap hold (unlikely in this environment), the Hawks will want to delay his signing until after Carroll to allow them as much cap room as possible. And if Millsap signs for more than the Early Bird exception, it really limits what they can do with Carroll.

The Early Bird limitations could be problem in the case of Carroll, who is due a major raise from a bargain $2.4 million this year.  He probably even deserves more than the $5.7 million Estimated Average Player Salary.*  I previously sung Carroll’s praises as one of the league’s most underrated players, and selected him to my team of East All-Stars for a “real” All-Star game. He is now up to 40 percent on threes while shooting a robust 4.3 per game.  But he also provides great cutting and energy offensively, leading to a high free throw rate for a secondary player and an overall .591 True Shooting Percentage.  Those skills in concert with his abilities as a defender at both wing positions (so the Hawks can hide Kyle Korver) and smallball four (the latter of which the Hawks don’t really utilize) are a very rare combination. Of the other wings on the market this summer, only Danny Green and Khris Middleton offer the same combination of proven three-point shooting and defense.

*This is just my opinion. It is possible Carroll may continue to remain criminally underrated and find his market value lower.

Were he 27, Carroll could merit a four-year deal starting at eight figures per in this new environment. But at 29, a long-term deal is a little dicier.  The Hawks might try one of two approaches.  The first would be a four-year deal starting right at the Estimated Average Player Salary with the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises, totaling $25.4 million.  While this may be a smaller starting salary than Carroll could get elsewhere, the number of years may be more than other teams would offer.  Depending on the market dynamics, the Hawks could offer a player option on the fourth year.  Keeping Carroll within the confines of the Early Bird exception could allow it to take advantage to add another two-way wing or big.  Of course, this also assumes Carroll and Millsap were willing to wait to actually sign their deals until after Atlanta had used its cap space—a rather dicey situation that would require a lot of trust between the parties.

 

On the other hand, if Millsap and Carroll sign immediately, but are willing to stay within the Early Bird exceptions, the Hawks can stay over the cap and retain the $5.5 million Mid-Level Exception and the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception.  This would certainly be their preferred route.

However, Carroll may find a deal within the confines of the Early Bird exception below his market value.  In that case, the Hawks would like to look at offering him a shorter deal with higher salaries that decline in value throughout the length of the contract.  The downside there is any deal starting at higher than the Early Bird Exception would require the use of their cap space. What’s more, by using cap space they would lose the MLE and BAE, limiting any further additions to the $2.8 million Room Exception. Nonetheless, the Hawks may have little choice. Including the first-round cap hold, the most the Hawks could pay Carroll is $10.2 million to start.

Re-sign Carroll big

So a two-year deal around $21 million would be the idea.  However, that would require Millsap waiting to sign until after Carroll, and staying within the Early Bird exception.  If both Millsap and Carroll require salaries above the Early Bird Exception, the Hawks will have to look into jettisoning players like Thabo Sefolosha, Adreian Payne, Shelvin Mack, or Kent Bazemore.  That would not be ideal, but none of those players are immovable.

 

It is also possible that the Hawks may find Carroll’s contract demands too expensive. In that case, they could have the space to look for his replacement(s).  If Carroll signs elsewhere or is renounced, the Hawks could have that same $10.2 million to work with in a market that includes a fair number of wings. But that again would require the dicey plan of asking Millsap to wait to sign his new contract, and that the contract fit within the Early Bird exception.

Antic is a far simpler proposition due to what should be lower salary demands. The Macedonian is not a great individual player, but as a backup center who can shoot threes and avoid getting taken advantage of in the post he allows the Hawks to keep their style of play rolling with their bench units.  At age 33 he probably will not get a ton of offers on the open market, so a two-year deal (the minimum allowed for an Early Bird contract) starting at around $2 million per year should get it done for him.  As a restricted free agent, the Hawks have the right to match any outside offer.

Assuming the Hawks continue their dream season and reach at least the Conference Finals, retaining Millsap and Carroll should be their preferred approach.  Adding another piece is possible via cap room or more likely the MLE, but depends on the amounts of their contracts and when they are signed.  The more likely outcome is retaining Millsap and Carroll, then adding a minimal piece via the Room Exception.  Even if that occurs, in 2016 Hawks could still have as much as $20 million in cap to add another free agent and still re-sign Al Horford.  If they keep winning like this, Atlanta could prove a premium free agent destination for the first time in its history.

Team Rebounds:

  • There are many good arguments for smoothing, laid out by Basketball Insiders’ and ESPN’s Larry Coon in this piece.  As he notes, the players will be entitled to 51 percent of the revenue even if player contracts do not add up to that much–the owners would simply write the players checks to alleviate the shortfall. However, the players may get some perceived value out of getting as many big contracts as they can on the books prior to a likely CBA opt-out by one of the two sides in the summer of 2017.  Smoothing is also something the owners want more than the players.  It may just be good negotiating to avoid simply agreeing without other concessions from the NBA, which the league in turn may be unwilling to give up.  On the other hand, cynics may also note that player agents would be against smoothing because they get a cut of new contracts, but do not get a cut of checks the league gives the players to cover any shortfall below 51 percent.  What’s more, with the league’s two biggest stars set to be free agents in 2016, and LeBron James having specifically positioned himself to be so that year, they would not be too happy about their maximum salary for that year being reduced due to smoothing.
  • It was noted earlier that contracts do not adjust upward with a rising cap. They are limited to 7.5 percent annual raises for a player re-signing via Early Bird or Bird rights (or extending with his prior team) and 4.5 percent annual raises when signing with another team or changing teams via sign-and-trade. The only exception is trade bonuses, which can encompass up to 15 percent of the remaining salary on the contract at the time the player is traded.  Trade bonuses have usually been of little relevance for max players, since their built-in raises outstrip the growth in the cap, and a trade bonus cannot cause a player’s salary to exceed the overall maximum for his experience level.  But with the cap going up like crazy after 2015, even max players will be able to get their full 15 percent trade bonuses in the event they are moved.  Expect agents to push much harder for trade bonuses on max contracts than in the past–and to get them in this buyers’ market.
  • As of this writing, the Warriors currently possess the fourth-best point differential in NBA history, behind only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.  If the Warriors can keep this up all season (and win the championship, of course), their feat will be much more impressive than those predecessors’.  Those teams all benefited from recent expansion to fatten up their victory margins.  The NBA expanded by eight teams from the 1966-67 to 1970-71 season, nearly doubling the number of teams from nine to 17.  The ABA’s 11 teams by 1970-71 siphoned away even more talent, meaning it was far easier for teams with a few dominant players to eviscerate the league as those Bucks and Lakers did.  The Bulls’ 72 win season also came in an expansion year, a few years after the league added four more teams.  Throw in terrible drafts from 1988 to 1991, and the league was much more watered down back then. With more talent from overseas, better training and player development, and perhaps most importantly much smarter front offices than in the past distributed throughout the league, winning in the NBA is harder today than it has ever been.  That makes what the Warriors are doing all the more remarkable.

 

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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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