NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Kawhi Leonard's regular-season rest could topple the Warriors dynasty

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

The Toronto Raptors walked off the floor in complete silence. Not a word was spoken by a player, coach or executive as they filed out of Oracle Arena. It was as if they were leaving a funeral. Fitting, considering that the Raptors may have just put NBA games at Oracle Arena to rest for good.

Leading the quiet assault was Kawhi Leonard, who delivered a spotless masterpiece in Game 4 on the road. After the game, hundreds of Raptors fans chanted “We The North” before bellowing a full-throated rendition of  “O Canada” inside the concrete walls of Oracle. Still, the Raptors staffers were stoic as ever as they exited the raucous scene.

“His demeanor has taken a big part of our team,” said Kyle Lowry after the game. “We have some guys that are fiery and feisty, but we all kind of just stay level-headed. Never get too up, never get too down.”

In Game 82 of his season, Leonard became the fourth player in NBA Finals history to score at least 36 points in a game without committing a single turnover, according to Basketball Reference. The other names on the list: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Durant. Leonard also added 12 rebounds and four steals on top of five 3-pointers and 50 percent shooting from the floor.

“He played amazing,” Stephen Curry said.

Added Draymond Green: “I don’t think you’re ever going to rattle Kawhi.”

Leonard’s unflappable play is no accident. In a sit-down interview with ESPN before Game 4, Leonard said he owed much of his postseason play to a controversial “load management” rest strategy that had the superstar sitting at least one game of every back-to-back in the regular season. The Raptors played 12 back-to-backs, but Leonard missed all of them.

 

“If we didn't do that, I wouldn't be here right now, for sure,” Leonard told ESPN. “The way we laid out the schedule was good; I’m happy. I don’t think I’d be playing right now if I tried to go through that (82-game) season.”

The NBA is a copycat league, and you can rest assured, after witnessing Leonard’s two-way dominance this postseason, that players, teams and executives will consider taking extra caution about playing fatigued stars in back-to-backs next regular season. The Raptors, guided by the team’s director of sports science and long-time player health guru Alex McKechnie, decided to employ strategic rest throughout the regular season, and the results are paying off in a big way.

At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and bear paws for hands, Leonard is a physical specimen who is worth all the load management headaches. Leonard is leading all playoff players in minutes, points, rebounds, steals, field goals and free throws.

Klay Thompson -- who was recognized this season as one of the best defenders on the planet when he was named to his first NBA All-Defensive team -- has the utmost respect for Leonard.

“Kawhi is so big and strong you can't really muscle him,” Thompson said. “You can't really force him off his path.”

The legend of Leonard is only growing. He fractured Kevon Looney’s shoulder after a punishing drive in Game 2 that sent Looney crashing into the hardwood. Warriors defenders bounce off of him like he’s a wall of flubber.

Stories about Leonard’s Herculean strength have long been whispered about around the league. There’s a machine in the San Antonio Spurs’ weight room that staffers referred to as “The Yo-Yo.” An athlete stands on a metal platform and straps into a harness around the midsection, which is attached by a thick wire that connects the harness to a steel wheel underneath the base. The athlete then performs a squat, anchored by the steel wheel that pulls the athlete down, making it more difficult to stand upright from a deep squat. (Hence, “The Yo-Yo.”)

For most pro athletes, this is a grueling exercise, like a super squat. But after several repetitions on “The Yo-Yo,” it was clear that this wasn’t a challenge for Leonard. Under close observation of strength coaches and teammates, Leonard took it to another level. The trainers added a steel plate that would create a downward force of two times Leonard’s body weight, which at the time was around 250 pounds.

 

Leonard kept going, with relative ease. Then suddenly, Leonard stopped. The room turned silent as Leonard looked down at his feet. He cracked the metal platform. He literally broke the machine. Said one Spurs staffer who witnessed it that day: “Too strong for it.”

Leonard has used his massive wingspan to help grab the 2014 Finals MVP and two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. But it’s that enormous frame that Matt Herring, who was the Spurs’ strength and conditioning coach for three seasons beginning in Leonard’s rookie year, remembers being excited, but also concerned about.

“One of the things we could just tell, if we weren’t cognizant of his training style, he could have gotten really big and muscular,” Herring said. “He came in with these great broad shoulders. I don’t know about a LeBron James size, but we were like, man, with Kawhi, you could just tell as a young kid he had the genetic makeup and the potential that, if we trained him a certain way, he could be looking like a linebacker, this big body.”

Another Spurs staffer recalls Leonard once coming into training camp at a monstrous 265 pounds. He shed 20 pounds in three weeks of training camp as they wanted him to be more of an explosive wing than a power forward. Nowadays, Leonard is everything the Raptors need him to be.

“We wanted him stealthy, not stocky,” Herring said of Leonard in San Antonio. “The kid worked incredibly hard, no questions asked. Always willing to do whatever you wanted him to do. If we weren’t careful, he could blow up and become a football player.”

Don’t mistake Leonard’s load management program as a slight to his work ethic. Leonard has increased his scoring average in each of his seven postseasons, beginning at 8.6 points per game as a rookie to 31.1 points per game now.

“All you can do is try to take away his air space,” Thompson said. “He's become such a good ball-handler, such a great shooter, especially in the mid-range, that you have to do anything you can to take his rhythm away.”

Leonard’s offseason work, primarily with his longtime trainer and San Diego State strength and conditioning coach Randy Shelton back in Southern California, has helped shape Leonard into one of the most unstoppable players in the game, peaking now at the highest level.

“Not to downgrade basketball players, but Kawhi [Leonard] has just a get-to-work type attitude that you see more in football guys and the weight room,” Herring said. “In the offseason in basketball, you can play basketball. In the offseason in football, you lift because you can’t go out and play football in the offseason. Football players have more understanding or appreciation for the weight room side of it. Kawhi has that same kind of work mentality, that he’s going to go in and work.”

Years ago, Shelton told me that Leonard’s sheer combination of mobility, wingspan and strength made him a basketball unicorn.

 

“I would compare him to Calvin Johnson -- we’re not even talking basketball,” Shelton said.

Those in Leonard’s circle have been noticeably tight-lipped about the superstar as the Raptors continue on their title quest. Leonard’s offseason looms large over this postseason run, but it’s all about the task at hand.

“Kawhi just presents a lot of problems,” Thompson said. “And his play-making has gotten so much better since he first got in the league. He's a complete player on that side of the ball -- or just a complete player in general. Much different challenge than what I faced these last few rounds. So I embrace it. It's fun to measure yourself against the best.”

The Warriors simply have no answer for Leonard at the moment. He has bulldozed his way to the rim and forced the Warriors to grab and pummel him like he’s Shaq with handles. In the series, Leonard has made 45 of 48 free throws. Only Jerry West has ever made more through four games of a Finals.

If titles become blueprints, Leonard is one win away from potentially changing the league in the same way that Curry launched the league’s 3-point shooting era. By taking off back-to-backs and putting together one of the best postseasons ever, Leonard might ignite a string of unprecedented superstar rest days in the coming year. Joel Embiid, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Blake Griffin used rest days last season, but Leonard’s postseason could spur more as teams try to gain a postseason edge.

It’s true that Leonard was somewhat a specific case this season. He played just nine games last season due to the mysterious quad injury with the Spurs. And not all of Leonard’s 22 missed games were due to load management. In that sense, Leonard’s rest-ridden season could be considered an anomaly. But Curry’s 3-point shooting was an anomaly, too. That didn’t stop the rest of the league from emulating or trying to emulate his approach.

It’s not clear whether Leonard, who turns 28 years old later this month, will play another back-to-back again in his career or whether this is just a one-season program. The NBA has rules against resting star players in marquee games and other specific scenarios.

But it’s hard to argue that this strategy should be just a temporary thing. With deliberate rest built into the eight-month grind, Leonard’s regular season workload is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. Down 3-1, the Warriors are searching for answers to slow down the Leonard machine. Leonard’s longtime teammate Danny Green has only had to guard Leonard in practice, but he’s had a similar experience as the Warriors.

“It’s a real pain in the ass,” Green said. “You know what moves are coming. You still can’t stop it.”

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