Why LeBron’s changed his tune on resting

Kawhi Leonard suffered a mysterious quadriceps injury throughout his final season as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Head coach Gregg (Pop) Popovich announced in September 2017 that Leonard was likely to miss “the beginning of pre-season”, yet the unexplained injury sidelined Leonard for 73 games in the 2017-18 season. Believing the Spurs mismanaged his damaged quadriceps, Leonard demanded a trade at season’s end, finding his way over the border to join the Toronto Raptors.


Concerned with Leonard’s health, Raptors medical staff developed a blueprint for his inaugural season; frequently scheduling regular-season games for Leonard to miss, in preservation for the playoffs. When Leonard wasn’t picked to play, the Raptors used the term “load management”, a now-famous phrase and tactic. Leonard played just 60 of 82 games throughout the 2018-19 season before running rampant in the Raptors playoff campaign, leading the team to their first NBA championship. To top off a scorching post-season run, he also grabbed his second Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. “Load management” made a big name for itself and now others are following suit. Whether it be rookies like Memphis’ Ja Morant, or relentless competitors like Russell Westbrook – once lauded for his willingness to play through pain – more players than ever are watching on from the sidelines to preserve their energy and overall health.


“Load management” has caused a great deal of controversy, most notably basketball fans upset that stars aren’t playing, and TV networks disgruntled they may be losing viewership. However, it’s tough to argue that extra rest wouldn’t be beneficial for NBA athletes, who constantly run prone to injury and fatigue. Former Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, once said, “unfortunately, we’ll never really see what these guys can do, because they’re tired all of the time”.


While “load management” is the new fad, why is superstar LeBron James, now in his 17th season, spurning a practice he took part in just a few years ago? James celebrated his 35th birthday two weeks ago, the age Kobe Bryant once referred to as “70 in basketball years”. Yet unbelievably, he’s still performing at an elite level in his 17th season, even garnering leaguewide MVP consideration. Being the oldest superstar in the league, “load management” could benefit James more than anyone. But when asked if he had considered following a management program, James replied, “why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me. My obligation is to play for my teammates. If I’m healthy, then I’m going to play. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy. It’s that simple.” An old-school mindset like Michael Jordan – famous for his toughness – who tells his players every year, “you’re paid to play 82 games”. A respectable, albeit behind the times stance to take. At least it would be if James is genuine.


During the 2014-15 season, ESPN sportswriter Brian Windhorst reported that James elected to sit out of a game against the Hawks in December. Windhorst stated, “they [the Cavaliers] thought LeBron was going to play, and LeBron just decided, ‘I’m not gonna play.’ Like, at the last minute, he told them, ‘I’m not playing.’ [James] had sort of just like waved a bit of a white flag there. He just didn’t feel like playing.” The Cavaliers later granted LeBron a two-week midseason holiday to Miami – in which he missed seven regular-season games – because he’d been “moody” and “moping for weeks.”


Another instance was during the 2016-17 season, LeBron was ridiculed for missing five games to “rest”, to which he responded, “I don’t understand why it’s become a problem now, because I sit out a couple games? Listen, Pop’s been doing this for 10 years, 12 years, 15 years and everybody was like, ‘You know what? That’s the smartest thing Pop has ever done.’ A coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game.”


With a history of taking games off to rest, why the sudden change of heart from James?


James is universally recognised as the second greatest player in NBA history, eclipsed only by Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. Being labelled “the best player in the league” is important to James and something he prides himself on. Having already won four MVPs throughout his career, ESPN’s Windhorst reported James is “pissed” he hasn’t won more. “He believes he should have won like 8 of the last 10 MVPs”.


During Stephen Curry’s rise to superstardom in 2015-16, discussions arose questioning whether Curry had succeeded James as the best player in the NBA. ESPN’s Windhorst suggested James was upset that he’d been “so good for so long” yet Curry’s stealing his spotlight. When trailing Curry’s Warriors in the finals, James postgame stated very matter-of-factly, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world, it’s simple”. When Curry won the first-ever unanimous MVP award in 2015-16, James stated, “Do you have any debate over that, really, when it comes to that award? But when you talk about most ‘valuable’, then you can have a different conversation”, obviously holding himself in higher regard than Curry.


Bill Simmons, founder of sports and pop culture website The Ringer, stated James and Curry’s relationship is “not friendly”. Simmons added, “I think LeBron really has genuine disdain for him…Curry comes in and kind of grabs the crown (“best player” title) a little bit. And more importantly I think to LeBron, became really popular.”


James won over the masses in the Curry debate, consolidating his presence as the NBA’s best player, but since Leonard’s remarkable playoff run last season, the talk is he may have claimed the title. ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s annual top 100 NBA player rankings listed Leonard above James going into this season, and Bill Simmons on The Bill Simmons Podcast ranked Leonard the best player in the NBA. Simmons stated, “until somebody beats Kawhi in a playoff series, he’s still number one on that list.”


James voicing his displeasure on “load management” seems like just another episode of passive-aggressive behaviour, a trait James has become known for in recent years. The Ringer’s Matt Borcas wrote a 2016 article titled, “Examining LeBron’s Passive Aggressiveness”. Acting confused by “load management” and claiming, “it doesn’t make sense”, is clearly an attempt from James to manipulate people’s perceptions of Leonard (and others following suit) while strengthening his own image as a tough, old-school player. “My obligation is to play for my teammates”, James had said on “load management”. Does this insinuate that Leonard doesn’t? James feels he’s being disrespected by people ranking Leonard above him, just as he was upset with Curry, so he maintains this hypocritical and childish approach.


Check out more NBA stories by Mark Miller HERE


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