The Toronto Raptors’ recent championship run was clearly highlighted by the incredibly high level of play of Kawhi Leonard. He was the unstoppable force, who kept the team moving forward, even when the odds were stacked against him. Leonard appeared to have a very high level of energy, even in the extra month of a grueling and exhausting NBA season.
So what kept Leonard so energized throughout the postseason? Perhaps it was the fact that he only played 60 games during the regular season. The Raptors were smart in limiting the number of games he played. Coming off an entire missed season, there were reasonable concerns about the level of stamina he would have in keeping up his high intensity of prolific play over the grind of a full season.
Of course, it helped that the Raptors were at the top of the Eastern Conference standings all season long, and they were in a position that afforded them the luxury of resting their best player for several stretches of the season. That rest likely contributed substantially to Leonard’s fresh legs and high energy levels during the team’s postseason push.
This begs the question of whether other teams should adopt a similar approach with their own stars. LeBron James for instance, was noticeably out of gas and banged up during his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was forced to sit out games, which ended up costing the team a playoff spot. Other players saw the toll of a full season cost them toward the end of the year as well. The Golden State Warriors were so banged up in latter half of their own playoff run, as Kevin Durant suffered a serious leg injury, and later Klay Thompson tore his ACL. Granted, those injuries are not necessarily the result of overplaying during the regular season, but rest is a safe way to preserve their bodies for the most important part of the year.
In order for a team to deliberately sit out a player, they likely need to weigh the risks versus the rewards. If a player is generally healthy, and a team is fighting for a playoff spot, there is a smaller likelihood that they will opt to rest him. In other words, what are they saving him for?
This approach is often seen in other sports as well. In football, where the risk of injury is as high as it gets, teams who have secured a playoff spot (or even home field advantage), often rest their top players, in order to reduce the risk of injury in a meaningless game, and to give their bodies additional time to rest. Similarly, soccer clubs often have their stars sit out a game, ahead of a more important matchup that is looming. Obviously fresh legs and higher energy levels are the clear motivation for such a move, as risk management becomes a bigger factor in the decision.
Other teams however, will often claim that sitting out their best players could halt a team’s momentum, and could stop the flow of what has gotten them to their current position. It comes down to each individual team’s philosophical point.
Ultimately, these decisions are incredibly dynamic, with so many factors coming into play. The team’s position in the standings, the individual player’s health and conditioning, and the level at which they are playing are all to be included in the decision making process. There are certain players, who are in the latter years of their careers, and in those cases, it could be smart to give their bodies added rest.
In the end, these decisions are always easier to praise when they work. In the case of Kawhi Leonard, the added rest might have contributed to the Toronto Raptors’ first ever NBA Championship.