After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

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USA Today

After Raptors' championship, Kawhi Leonard trade could redefine NBA

For over a decade, the biggest swing in Toronto’s sports history came from Blue Jays slugger Joe Carter to win the 1993 World Series.

But not even that iconic home run can compete with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s swing for Kawhi Leonard, the first NBA Finals MVP in franchise history.

On July 18, Ujiri traded franchise-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green.

The result was an image that Raptors fans couldn’t have ever dreamed of this time last year: Leonard, in Toronto red, standing on the Larry O’Brien presentation platform with his hands raised in the air. After a controversial load-management strategy during the regular season, Leonard capped off one of the greatest postseason runs ever, culminating in one of the biggest Finals upsets ever.

Going against the two-time defending champs, the Raptors were the underdogs of underdogs. On the Sunday before the Finals, with Kevin Durant’s health status still in the air, Golden State opened as a minus-275 favorite at the Westgate SuperBook and even reached as high as minus-300 before settling in at minus-270, according to sports-betting trackers. Since 1969, NBA Finals series favorites of at least minus-200 are 26-3 and a 25-2 since 1976. Favorites of at least minus-300, where the Warriors peaked before Game 1, are 13-1 all-time.

The only upset more stunning by Vegas standards was the 2004 Finals, when the Detroit Pistons took down the minus-700 Los Angeles Lakers, a juggernaut that also came up short of its fourth championship in five years.

The Warriors were battered and worn down. But Leonard outlasted them all, winning a Finals MVP in his first season with the Raptors. But the Leonard trade didn’t just precipitate a championship. The real lasting power is that it may forever alter how NBA power-brokers think about deal-making.

By rewriting the Raptors’ crestfallen history in just one season, the Leonard acquisition may redefine the league as a whole.

* * *

A LeBron James autograph, written on a crumbly piece of paper, stills hangs above Stephen Pike’s bed in his childhood home in St. John’s, the capital city of the remote Newfoundland-Labrador province in Canada. It’s laminated now and has been taped to his bedroom wall for the last 15 years, a reminder of when Pike and so many Canadians got hooked on the NBA.

This is what was on Pike’s mind when he trekked from his hometown in North Canada -- geographically closer to Greenland than Toronto, in fact -- to watch his beloved Raptors try to clinch the 2019 NBA Finals in Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena. For the better of the last two decades, the ill-fated day that Pike got James’ autograph has stood as a symbol for the at times thrilling, yet mostly tortured existence of being a Raptors fan.

Fresh off being selected No. 1 overall in the NBA by the Cleveland Cavaliers, an 18-year-old James visited St. John’s -- a community of barely 100,000, or one-seventh the population of Winnipeg -- to play the Raptors on Oct. 23, 2003 in a preseason game. It was there, outside a small hotel in a far-off corner of Canada, that a 12-year-old Pike waited in line for a chance to see the biggest high school phenom the game had ever seen.

This was the Beatles playing a concert in Anchorage, Alaska, if Anchorage was half as populated. As James passed through a sea of screaming Canadian fans, Pike snuck James a piece of white paper, and The Chosen One scribbled down his signature as he hurried along. Pike kept the memento in his pocket when he showed up with his twin brother and father for the highly anticipated Raptors-Cavaliers game scheduled for later that night.

“We absolutely fell in love with the game after seeing the NBA players -- Vince Carter and LeBron James,” said Pike, now 28 years old, of what would be a memorable night for multiple reasons. “It’s been a love affair ever since.”

Prior to the 2003 NBA lottery that gave the Cavs the No. 1 overall pick and the Raptors the No. 4 overall pick, MLSE, the Raptors’ ownership group, struck a momentous deal to host a preseason game at Mile One Stadium (now Mile High Centre), the home of MSLE’s minor league hockey team. The arena, which had a 5,000-person capacity at the time, gets its namesake because St. John’s marks the starting point of the TransCanada highway that snakes across the vast country for 5,000 miles.

“The town was very excited," Pike said.

Only one problem.

“They never dealt with a basketball game before,” Pike said.

Actually, two problems: Oct. 23, 2003 was an unusually humid day in St. John’s, a dreaded weather outlook for a hockey arena. A thick fog ominously blanketed the entire town.

The Pike family showed up early to the sold-out arena, but condensation from the humidity and the rink below began to pool atop the court. An hour before the game, stadium officials asked attendees to help dry the playing court. So Pike and his brother grabbed towels handed out by the officials, got down on their hands and knees and began wiping down the hardwood in hopes that they could let James and Carter play.

Minutes later, the Raptors’ GM at the time, Glen Grunwald, walked out to the center of the damp court and announced the game was cancelled due to unsafe playing conditions.

"I will make you one promise," Grunwald told the fans in attendance. "The Toronto Raptors will return to this arena and play a game within two years."

“It was pretty sad,” Pike said. “But just to be close to the players was neat.”

Over the next year or so, Carter was traded from the Raptors and Grunwald was fired. The hockey team left St. John’s in 2005. To this day, Newfoundland-Labrador hasn’t hosted an NBA game.

“It was a one-time thing and hasn’t come back since,” Pike said. “I don’t know how it happened. I don’t see it happening any time soon ever again.”

Before Game 5 at ScotiaBank Arena, Grunwald told NBCSports.com that the canceled game was “a tragedy” and “the strangest night of my NBA career.”

But attending that canceled game still sparked a passion that will last a lifetime. After seeing James and Carter, Pike began practicing basketball regularly, and he ended up playing at the national level for his province Newfoundland-Labrador against some Ontario prospects named Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. In 2011, Thompson became the highest Canadian born draftee as the No. 4 overall pick, and Joseph was selected 29th by the San Antonio Spurs. Both grew up watching the Raptors and later became NBA champions.

“The Vince Carter effect,” Pike said.

Fifteen years after getting James’ signature, Pike traveled eight hours on two flights from his hometown in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 8,000 people on the banks of Labrador Sea in Northern Canada, to be at ScotiaBank Arena to watch the Raptors win the NBA championship. All in all, Pike estimates he spent 3,000 Canadian dollars to attend Game 5, including an $860 seat in the upper deck and a $1,600 flight that took off in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and connected through Halifax’s airport.

“I’m pretty much in the janitor’s closet, but that’s OK,” Pike said. “As long as I had two feet in the building, I was happy with that.”

For a science teacher and varsity basketball coach at the local high school, the trip to Game 5 chewed up nearly all his savings. And that doesn’t count the cost of the Kyle Lowry jersey that he wore to the game, the “We The North” undershirt, the “We The North” flag he wrapped around his waist, the Raptors hat or the blue-yellow-red Newfoundland-Labrador provincial flag he brought to Jurassic Park so he could wave it proudly with thousands of Canadian fans.

Pike, like thousands of others who gathered in downtown Toronto on Tuesday night, will never forget that moment, which he began planning for immediately after the Eastern Conference finals.

“I knew as soon as they beat Milwaukee,” Pike said, “I was going to spend the money and make this once-in-a-lifetime trip.”

Sitting from his seat in Section 313 with his Labrador flag draped around his shoulders, Pike watched with his twin brother beside him as the Raptors came within 30 seconds of Canada’s first NBA title. They envisioned the hoisting of the Larry O’Brien trophy and a joyous celebration back home in Newfoundland-Labrador. The dream was becoming a reality.

Instead, the Raptors let it slip away, and the Pike brothers went home empty-handed again.

* * *

Masai Ujiri had seen enough. For the third straight year, the Raptors’ Finals chase ended prematurely at the hands of James and the Cavaliers. The defeats were so devastating that the city of Toronto had been dubbed “LeBronto” by ESPN and the NBA community at large.

As the team’s general manager since 2013 and team president since 2016, Ujiri has never shied away from reinventing the Raptors’ place in the NBA.

One of his first transactions with the team was trading away the team’s former No.1 overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, to the New York Knicks for three draft picks. Before his first postseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, Ujiri visited Toronto’s pre-game pep rally in Maple Leaf Square and blared into the microphone: “I got one thing I want to say before we go into the game … F*** Brooklyn! Let’s go!”

Four years later, after the winningest season in Raptors history, which capped the winningest stretch in Raptors history, Ujiri fired head coach Dwane Casey and promoted his top assistant coach, Nick Nurse, to take over. It was Nurse’s first head-coaching job in the NBA.

Fortune favors the bold. At the time, the decision to promote Nurse to the head coaching position seemed like Ujiri’s boldest gamble yet. But it was a pull at the penny slots compared to what he did a month later, trading for San Antonio’s injured small forward.

In a span of two months, Ujiri had gotten rid of two of the franchise’s most beloved members in order to deploy a player who played just nine games in the prior season.

The Leonard deal may go down as the biggest trade in NBA history. Only one other time has a team traded for a player that won a Finals MVP in his first season with the team. That came in 1982-83, after the Houston Rockets traded Moses Malone to the Philadelphia 76ers for Caldwell Jones and a 1983 first-round pick (which ended up being No. 3 pick Rodney McCray).

But that one comes with the caveat that it was functionally a sign-and-trade when Malone made his intentions clear that he wanted to sign in Philadelphia, and the two sides later agreed to facilitate a deal. Malone went on to win a regular season MVP and Finals MVP in his Philly debut season, uttering the iconic  “Fo’ Fo’ Fo’” phrase along the way.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Ujiri made the deal even though Leonard reportedly didn’t even want to play in Toronto initially.

In June of 1992, Philadelphia traded Charles Barkley to the Phoenix Suns for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. Barkley won the league MVP over Michael Jordan the following season, but His Airness got the last laugh by beating Sir Charles in the NBA Finals.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Leonard delivered a title.

For trades with a longer tail, you can look at the time the Los Angeles Lakers snagged a teenaged phenom named Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets by trading for his draft rights at pick No. 13 in exchange for Vlade Divac, who only played two seasons for the Hornets. Bryant won five titles with the Lakers.

The Leonard trade is bigger than that: Bryant didn’t win a Finals MVP or regular season MVP until a decade after the initial trade, and the Lakers, the antithesis of the Raptors, had already established themselves as one of the most successful franchises in sports.

Leonard occupies the rare space of a cult hero turned global superstar. He last posted on social media in 2015, wrapping it up after his fourth tweet on his verified Twitter account. He wears New Balances and hasn’t changed his cornrow hairstyle in over a decade. His most culturally-relevant moment came when he laughed at a press conference.

And yet, an MSLE official told NBCSports.com that Leonard jerseys have become the No. 1 selling jersey in franchise history over one season, outpacing Carter, DeRozan and Lowry’s best in one-season sales.

“Kawhi Leonard jerseys sales,” the MLSE official said, “have exceeded all expectations.”

* * *

All NBA champions need a little luck to go their way. For the Raptors, it must be noted, not as a slight, but as a matter of fact, that the Warriors literally began to fall apart this postseason, the fifth Finals run for the franchise.

In fact, five of the Warriors’ top seven players missed at least one game due to injury this postseason. Kevin Durant missed 10 games with a calf injury and torn Achilles; DeMarcus Cousins missed 14 games with a torn quad; Andre Iguodala labored through a calf strain that knocked him out for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals; Kevon Looney suffered a chest injury, sidelining him for Game 3 of the NBA Finals; Klay Thompson pulled his hamstring in Game 2 and then hobbled off the court in Game 6 in heartbreaking fashion with a torn ACL.

All in all, the 2019 Warriors encountered the same fate as the 2015 Cavaliers that played much of the postseason without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, except this Warriors team suffered more injuries from a total-missed-games standpoint. The 2018-19 Warriors saw 27 games missed due to injury by their top seven players in minutes per game. The 2014-15 Cavs suffered 25 games lost due to injury (Love missed 16, Irving seven and J.R. Smith two).

The legacy of this Warriors team has to be its resilience. It fought to the final seconds in Game 6 despite being battered to the bone. In the fourth quarter, as the Raptors recovered offensive rebound after offensive rebound over a laboring Cousins, who could barely jump off the ground, Looney could only look on from the bench with a heating pad strapped to his right shoulder. No Thompson, no Durant. That image will be forever stained in the minds of Warriors fans.

But to say the Raptors were lucky is an insult to their training staff, led by director of sports science Alex McKechnie. The Raptors were one of the healthiest, strongest teams we’ve seen in this sport. The Raptors’ top seven in minutes per game in the regular season -- Leonard, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka -- missed a grand total of zero games due to injury this postseason. VanVleet lost a tooth and needed seven stitches to repair his face at one point, but he played well enough to earn a Finals MVP vote.

After losing the first game of the postseason to Orlando, the Raptors just bulldozed their way to the title. They swept the Magic after that first loss, took down the mighty Philadelphia 76ers, who sported the best net-rating of any starting lineup in the East. They mowed down the expected MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks after going down 0-2.

To top it all off, they swept the Warriors on their home floor in the NBA Finals, winning all three games in the sendoff to Oracle Arena. The Raptors don’t care about your sentimentality, MVPs or Process. They mean business.

Yes, an NBA champion needs a little luck. But the Raptors damn well created their own as well.

* * *

By swinging the Leonard trade and then acquiring Gasol at the trade deadline, Ujiri made himself into one of the most coveted executives in the NBA.

But his Midas touch wasn’t limited to this season. Keep in mind that Poeltl, the second player that Ujiri sent to San Antonio for Leonard, was selected with the No. 9 pick in the 2016 draft. How did the Raptors pick in that slot? Because Ujiri nabbed a first-rounder from the New York Knicks in exchange for Bargnani, who was out of the league three years later.

The Washington Wizards are expected to offer Ujiri an annual $10 million deal, according to ESPN, and for good reason. But it likely doesn’t get into the eight-figure annual zone unless he makes that trade for Leonard.

The NBA is a copycat league, and executives around the league expect more teams to try to emulate the Leonard blueprint, encouraging more teams to be more aggressive this summer when chasing stars like Anthony Davis. See what Leonard did in Toronto? Go all in for Davis.

That’s what happens when a traded player wins Finals MVP in his debut season. That’s what happens when you win a franchise’s first ever championship and make fans from the remote corners of the world make a pilgrimage to ScotiaBank Arena. That’s what happens when you make the biggest trade in NBA history to land the best player in the world.

“I wanted to make history here,” Leonard said after winning the 2019 Finals, “and that’s all I did.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

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USA Today Sports

Anthony Davis should play more at center for DeMarcus Cousins-less Lakers

LeBron James’ team could not score. Worse yet, his star big man was injured.

The Miami Heat managed just 75 points against the vaunted Indiana Pacers defense led by Frank Vogel in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. Chris Bosh pulled an abdominal muscle in Game 1 and wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. The Heat were in crisis mode.

The next day, the Heat held practice to figure out who was going to replace Bosh in the starting lineup. Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem started Game 2, but matching the Pacers’ massive size up front wasn’t working. David West and Roy Hibbert weren’t budging.

After practice, the Heat’s brain trust gathered for an intense meeting. Some believed staying big was the only logical choice. Others thought going small would force the Pacers to adjust. Pat Riley voiced his thoughts and so did New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant coach at the time. 

The late-night meeting never resulted in consensus. Spoelstra and the Heat brass walked to their cars in the parking garage along Biscayne Bay.

Spoelstra turned to his colleagues.

“I know what I’m gonna do,” Spoelstra said with a look.

They knew what it meant. 

The next night, Spoelstra signed his starting lineup sheet with Shane Battier starting as a big, allowing LeBron James to effectively operate as the power forward on offense. The Heat lost Game 3, but Spoelstra kept at it. In Game 4, the Heat exploded for 101 points as James erupted for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists with Ronny Turiaf as the Heat’s lone true big man on the court.

James was unlocked as a do-it-all big man. He set screens. He crashed the boards for putback dunks. He sliced through the defense as West shadowed Battier at the perimeter. After two 75-point games, the Heat would go on to average 100.7 points for the rest of the playoffs and eventually win the 2012 NBA Finals with the smaller, unconventional formation with a fully recovered Bosh at center.

Now, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing a similar dilemma -- but with a twist. Now, Vogel is the head coach with the chance to go small. With James’ star big man DeMarcus Cousins out with a torn ACL suffered last week, does his coach effectively make James a big again?

That doesn’t happen without Anthony Davis’ blessing. And therein lies the rub. 

At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and listed at 253 pounds, Davis is one of the largest human beings on the planet. But even while the league is moving away from lumbering 7-footers, Davis still prefers not to play the position of players his size. In fact, he told the Lakers up front that he wanted the roster stocked with centers.

Sitting between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Vogel at the Lakers’ introductory press conference last month, Davis was asked about his ideal position.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Davis said. “I like playing the 4. I don’t really like playing the 5.”

Then Davis smiled and put his hand on Vogel’s shoulder.

“But if it comes down to it, if coach needs me to play the 5, then I’ll play the 5.”

Pelinka jumped in, emphasizing the fact that the Lakers granted the upcoming free agent’s wishes by getting commitments from JaVale McGee and Cousins.

“When Anthony and I first started talking about the roster, he did say, ‘Hey, I’d love to have some 5s that can bang with some length.’ He’s 26. We want a decade of dominance out of him here so we’ve got to do what’s best for his body,” Pelinka said. “And having him bang against the biggest centers in the West every night is not what’s best for his body, or for our team or for our franchise.

“We wanted to make sure to honor what Anthony asked for: to get some 5s that he can play with.”

The Lakers aren’t exactly turning tides. Looking at the New Orleans Pelicans’ free agent signings over the years, it’s clear that Davis’ preferences were granted there, too.

In 2015, the team signed center Omer Asik to a five-year, $58 million contract and center Alexis Ajinca to a four-year, $20 million deal. In 2016-17, the Pelicans traded Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway and a future first-round and second-round pick for yet another center, this time, the All-Star Cousins. In 2017-18, the team swung a deal for sweet-shooting center Nikola Mirotic, who starred as Davis’ counterpart in the 2018 playoffs after Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in January of that season. With Mirotic spacing the floor next to Davis, the team swept the Portland Trail Blazers.

Like he professes to do for Vogel, Davis has manned the 5 in high-profile situations. In 60 possessions while Davis guarded Jusuf Nurkic in that playoff series, the Blazers’ offense managed just 50 points, spitting out just 83.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/stats. On the other end, Davis manhandled Nurk to the tune of 64 points on 59.5 percent shooting in 134 possessions with the Portland center guarding him. Davis’ soaring putback dunk on Nurkic in Game 3 was the signature moment of the series, symbolizing Davis’ power as a towering big man.

Putting Davis-at-center on the backburner until the postseason may be the Lakers’ plan. McGee could be the regular-season stopgap until the postseason arrives and then they could more regularly unleash a pseudo-Death Lineup with James at the 4 and Davis at the 5. 

Though McGee was the Lakers’ full-time starter last season, he wasn’t nearly as entrusted to be the finisher. Simply put, he started 76 percent of the Lakers’ games, but played just 31 percent of the team’s clutch minutes. Presumably, Cousins was supposed to fill that role, but his season is in doubt recovering from an ACL tear.

Protecting Davis’ body should be a top priority for the Lakers. After all, Davis in street clothes can’t play any position. On that point, Davis has suffered no shortage of nagging injuries over his seven-year career, holding his career high in games played to just 75 games. On his left side of his body, public book-keeping data shows that he has missed games due to an injured toe, ankle, knee, hip, groin and shoulder. On the right side, he has sat out with a damaged toe, quad, hip, elbow and shoulder. More generally, he has been sidelined games with concussions, a sore back and bruised chest. You can understand his reluctance to “bang” with centers every night.

As of now, McGee doesn’t have a true backup center on the depth chart, if we’re not counting Davis. James, Jared Dudley and Kyle Kuzma could moonlight as small-ball centers in a pinch. With Cousins out, the Lakers reportedly are bringing in free agent centers Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah and Mo Speights for workouts this week, with Marcin Gortat on the radar. 

But if the choice is between veteran free agent centers to eat up minutes, the call is an easy one for me: it should be Noah. 

Though Noah is not the dynamic scorer that Cousins is, the 33-year-old brings the same playmaking and rebounding abilities as Cousins, but with more defensive fire (see: Devin Booker). Noah can fill the void left by Cousins as a distributor. Last season, only six centers tallied more than six assists per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference tracking. Cousins was one of them. Another was Noah. 

In the end, the best Lakers’ replacement for Cousins is Davis himself. If we earmarked Cousins for 30 minutes a night at center, most of those minutes should now go to Davis. That allocation might not happen until playoff time in the name of preserving Davis’ body. But it should still happen.

While the focus is on the short term, what the Lakers do with their lineups in April, May and June is most important. The Heat didn’t go to Bosh at center until late in the 2012 playoffs and it resulted in their first title together. The next year, they won again with Bosh at center, culminating in his iconic rebound in Game 6 to save the season. It’s not hard to see Davis being the new Bosh and Dudley filling Battier’s role as the veteran dirty-work spacer. Imagine Davis and James working in a spread-out system. That could be the silver lining of Cousins’ injury.

Just like that Heat team, the Lakers can use this adversity and turn it into an opportunity. James likes to say that the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. It’s a saying that he picked up in Miami, only after losing the Finals in 2011. Hopefully for the Lakers, they won’t have to experience a similar defeat for Davis to see it.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

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USA Today Sports

Who are the top NBA 'DNP-Rest' candidates for 2019-20?

The 1,230-game NBA schedule has arrived. While fans start to plan out which games to attend and which marquee matchups to watch, teams will be doing some planning of their own: 

When to sit their stars during the 82-game grind.

Like it or not, this is the NBA we live in. After years of employing strategic rest programs, coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs used to be the face of the “DNP-Rest.” But Kawhi Leonard’s season -- winning the Larry O’Brien trophy on the heels of an aggressive resting program in Toronto -- could represent a watershed moment for the league. 

In 2018-19, Leonard did not play a single full back-to-back set in the regular season and wrapped up a postseason so dominant that many now consider him to be the top player in the NBA. To him, there should be no debate: All that load management helped him stay healthy and peak at the right time.

Whether the rest of the league copies the Kawhi plan is a mystery. Some of the game’s brightest stars, including LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis, took games off to rest last season, although not to Leonard levels. Nonetheless, the DNP-Rest scourge has grown to such an extent that embracing load management has found its way into free agency pitches.

“It’s not enough to prove you can win,” said one GM. “Now you have to prove you can prolong their career.”

As the DNP-rest strategy rises to unseen levels, the NBA isn’t sitting idly on the sidelines. Back-to-backs are at an all-time low. In April, commissioner Adam Silver floated the idea of taking a small chunk out of the regular season in order to fit in a midseason tournament. In June, ESPN reported that NBA and team executives have been exploring such a cup-style tournament as soon as the 2020-21 season.

But as we get ready for marquee matchups in an open championship race, some of those high-profile games may fall victim to load management. Which stars and which games are most at risk? 

* * * 

Vijay Shravah knew there had to be a better way. As a NASA engineer in Silicon Valley, Shravah and his buddies used to buy tickets to watch the Golden State Warriors only to find out last minute that Stephen Curry and other stars weren’t playing that night. They weren’t injured. They were healthy scratches. Even on national TV games.

“The more it happened, the more it baffled me that there was no recourse,” Shravah told NBC Sports.

Shravah felt like it was a breach of trust. No other pro team sport depends on its star power like the NBA, and suddenly, it seemed healthy stars weren’t as dependable as he thought. As the DNP-Rest took hold among the best players, the problem only got worse for ticket buyers and home viewers. In October 2017, Shravah founded Fansure, an analytical start-up company that helps protect fans by offering reimbursement plans for tickets to games in which star player(s) sit out due to either rest or a last-minute injury. 

It takes some real brainpower to make it work. The company has employed two NASA scientists to create algorithms that predict the likelihood of a star player sitting, accounting for several factors, including a player’s rest history, days off heading into a game and quality of opponent. A fan can purchase a 50 percent reimbursement or 100 percent reimbursement package for a small variable fee separate from their ticket purchase. Should the star player sit, the fan gets its money back -- not unlike when airlines offer ticket protection plans before checkout.

Teams are resting their players, or at least being honest about it, more than ever. One of Fansure’s findings should worry fans and executives alike: Top players are taking off games 3.5 times as often as they did in 2012-13. Top 10 players, on average, rested about seven percent of its games last season (every six games or so) and most often at the end of the season in preparation for the playoffs. (The company’s top 10 criteria is based on their internal metrics). That figure is disproportionately represented by Leonard last season, when he sat 22 of 82 games to rest and protect his bothersome knee.


With an open championship race, Shravah expects stars like Embiid, James and Leonard to take games off when it makes sense in order to maximize postseason performance. 

“There’s no reason to believe why the trend won’t continue,” Shravah said. 

Of course, not all players are risks for load management. Fansure has identified 10 players who are most likely to be a healthy scratch. At the top of the list is the 34-year-old James, who played a career-low 55 games last season dealing with a significant groin injury that forced him to sit for precautionary reasons. After crunching the schedule that was released on Monday, Fansure expects James to miss 17.9 games this season due to rest.

That might seem like a lot, but James has played over 56,000 minutes in his NBA career (playoffs included), which is more than Stephen Curry and his father Dell Curry combined. With the Lakers vying for a championship and Anthony Davis being able to shoulder the load in his absence, it’s possible James takes a Leonard-like conservative approach in the regular season.

Following James, Leonard, Embiid, Paul George, Curry and Davis were highlighted as likely sitters considering their injury risk, rest history and respective team’s championship contention. Fansure also sees a strong probability that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Damian Lillard will miss several games to recover from the 82-game grind.

Which games are most likely to fall victim to load management? Fansure has uncovered six factors that raise the rest probability for the LeBrons and Kawhis of the league:

  • Last game of the season (14.9 times more likely)
  • Second game of a back-to-back (6.5)
  • Single-game road trip (5.2)
  • First game of a back-to-back (4.8)
  • Three games in four days (4.4)
  • Away games (3.5)


The single-game road trip is a hidden pothole. On March 27 last season, the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Making matters worse for Jazz fans hoping to see Lebron, the single-game road trip was sandwiched inside a four-game homestand. Sure enough, James took the night off and didn’t travel with the team. The same went for Leonard on March 3 when he rested during the team’s one-game road trip to Detroit even though it didn’t come on a back-to-back.

Shravah realized it’s not just ticket buyers who are affected when James abruptly decides to sit out even on a non-back-to-back. TV advertisers and gambling sectors aren’t jumping for joy either. This past year, Shravah hired the eighth member of the Fansure team, Scott Kaplan, who is an economics PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and winner of the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics poster competition for his research on the economic impact of star players on NBA ticket prices.

Using Kaplan’s insight and the team’s engineering intel, Fansure is now assessing quality of matchups and risk of injury/rest to help advertisers and fans pick which games to lay down big money for and which to avoid.

Looking through that lens, there are several high-profile games that project to have the highest chance of being a load management game. 

First is Nov. 7 when Lillard and the Blazers come to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on TNT. The Clippers will have played Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks the night before on ESPN. Will Leonard and George play that second night of a back-to-back and third game in four nights, especially if George is coming back from double shoulder surgery? 

On the Blazers’ side, it’s the front end of a back-to-back before they fly back up to Portland for a home game against Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Will Lillard and CJ McCollum, fresh off the deepest playoff run of their career, give it a go?

Another early DNP-Rest possibility is the first Warriors-Lakers matchup of the season on Nov. 13. The Lakers will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, after playing in Phoenix the night before and flying overnight to Los Angeles. The highly anticipated game will, of course, be nationally televised.

James and Davis may decide to play in that marquee game, but the previous night in Phoenix is a game that may fall victim to DNP-rest. It’s a single-game road trip for the Lakers, with two home games before and four home games after the trek to the desert. If Phoenix fans don’t get to see James that night, then they might not see him all season. The other time they host L.A. is the Lakers’ season finale, a game in which James has sat 11 of his last 12 years.

For those outlining the season, here are 10 games that Fansure has red-flagged for load management risk:

  • Nov. 7: POR at LAC
  • Nov. 12: LAL at PHX
  • Nov. 27: LAC at MEM
  • Jan. 23: LAL at BKN
  • Feb. 11: LAC at PHI
  • March 1: LAL at NOP
  • March 12: BKN at GSW
  • March 14: NOP at LAC
  • March 19: PHI at CHA
  • April 15: LAL at PHX
     

Kevin Durant’s “return” to Golden State is on the list for a more subtle reason. Irving, who took games off ahead of the playoffs last season, is also on the load management radar for that late-season game. The trip to the Chase Center is the first night of a back-to-back, but more importantly, it’s bookended by games in Los Angeles. Will Durant travel during his Achilles rehab or will he stay in Los Angeles? 

For what it’s worth, the NBA chose not to put that game on national TV, underlining the sheer unlikelihood of Durant making an appearance at the Warriors’ new arena in the 2019-20 season.

* * * 

Don’t expect every team to have a hard-line rest schedule until the season starts and signs of fatigue begin to show.

Last month, Houston GM Daryl Morey made headlines when he responded to a question about load management on “The Dan Patrick Show,” saying the team will have “a very put together plan by our staff throughout the season to have our guys peak in April.” But sources told NBC Sports that no decision has been made to rest James Harden and Russell Westbrook entire games. Neither Westbrook or Harden have gone that route before, but it must be noted that Harden will enter his 30s, joining the 31-year-old Westbrook, later this month.

It remains to be seen how often Leonard will rest this season. At his opening press conference in Los Angeles, Leonard indicated that this season he would take the load management on a “day-by-day” basis and that he intends to play out the season. Part of Toronto’s load management program was a response to Leonard only playing nine games in the previous season with the Spurs. Leonard has hinted that he feels healthier entering this season.

“Resting on back-to-backs is becoming a more and more accepted practice around the league,” said one top executive. “But Kawhi didn’t invent this.”

Still, Leonard’s success last season will influence at least some decisions across the league. Embiid, in particular, seemed keen on the idea of strategically resting more next season.

“Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season,” Embiid said after losing to the Raptors in the playoffs, “obviously I don’t want to miss that many games, but when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that ... definitely got to take a better approach.”

It’ll be interesting to see how the Philadelphia 76ers handle Embiid’s rest regimen. The team signed big man Al Horford to start next to him and potentially start at center in Embiid’s place if he needs a night off. Those decisions will come down to Embiid and new members of the medical staff after the team parted ways with two major voices -- vice president of athlete care Dr. Danny Medina and director of performance research and development Dr. David Martin. 

The schedule-makers have taken extra precaution when booking the Sixers for primetime. Of the 13 second nights of a back-to-back on Philadelphia’s schedule, none of them were handpicked to be on national television (ESPN, TNT or ABC).

* * * 

Privately this summer, representatives from the league office have reached out to team brass to strongly convey the importance of the availability of its stars, especially on national TV games. While player health remains the top priority, teams have been told to keep in mind that the NBA is uniquely positioned to showcase its stars. With no facemasks, helmets or walls to shield fans from seeing the stars, it is the most intimate league in America.

“Let’s not kill the golden goose,” relayed one team executive who spoke to the league office this summer.

The NBA has tweaked the schedule to account for the rise of the DNP-Rest. In 2017, the league office lengthened the season by two weeks to squeeze in more rest days and reduce back-to-backs. After a series of high-profile healthy scratches, the NBA no longer schedules an ABC game in a back-to-back set -- but even building in additional off days sometimes isn’t enough.

The NBA isn’t just competing against Netflix and the NFL for eyeballs. It’s competing against NBA 2K, which, according to its parent company, has sold 90 million units worldwide. Video games are increasingly becoming so life-like and compelling that there is real expectation in league circles that fans could prefer the video game over the real thing, especially in the load management era.

If James, Leonard or George sit to rest, fans might tune out the actual Lakers-Clippers game in order to play as LeBron against Kawhi and PG-13 on their favorite gaming console.

Said one GM: “There’s no load management in 2K.”

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