Regular readers of this editor’s note know that, about once a year, this column examines some aspect of the intersection between professional sports and reliability culture.
The first column of this type addressed the ways that the 1990s Chicago Bulls practiced physical self-care to the point where their six regular starters were able to play in 95.9% of games over three championship seasons, from 1990–’93. In particular, Michael Jordan was famous for doing whatever was medically necessary, no matter how tedious, to remedy any injuries and prepare for the next game.
That was nearly 30 years ago, and several generations of players have moved through the NBA since then. With new players comes new ways of doing things, and over the past several weeks, one player in particular has had his self-care habits under close scrutiny by fans and the press: Kawhi Leonard.
In the 2018–’19 NBA season, Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history. He also deliberately skipped more than a quarter of regular-season games, playing in 60 of 82 and risking the disappointment of fans on his off-days. However, this was followed by his playing in 24 straight playoff games, resulting not only in the championship, but also a second Finals MVP award for Leonard himself.
A November 2019 story in USA Today describes Leonard’s self-care approach: “After playing only nine games during his final season with San Antonio because of complications with his injured left quad, Leonard and the Raptors outlined a ‘load management program.’ Leonard missed 22 games, including numerous back-to-backs. He also received prolonged treatment following games and on off days. Most NBA players complete that routine, but Leonard’s teammates noticed it became much more extensive. Not only did Leonard receive treatment for his knees and quad muscles, he stretched, lifted and rehabbed religiously to ensure his entire body felt healthy.”
In the 2019–’20 season, Leonard has kept up this routine and has come under fire not only from sportswriters but also from Michael Jordan himself, whose comment on load management was, “You’re paid to play 82 games.” However, I think Jordan and others have yet to come to grips with this fairly new yet sound application of planned downtime.
If you’re looking for a contrast, let me present Exhibit A: the Golden State Warriors. Their amazing five-year run from 2014–’19 resulted in five straight trips to the NBA Finals and three championships. All that wear and tear also resulted in catastrophic failure for three of their stars: a torn Achilles tendon for Kevin Durant, a torn ACL for Klay Thompson, and a broken hand for Steph Curry.
My hunch is that planned downtime is here to stay in the NBA. We’re in an era where players like Leonard are discarding run-to-fail and are embracing more reliable approaches to self-care.