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

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AP Photo

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

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.”

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

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

The Miami Heat have never gotten off to a better start. Not the Heatles, not the Shaq-led teams, no team in the 32-year history of the franchise. At 18-6 through 24 games, none have won more games than a ragtag team led by the 30th pick of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Butler.

This Heat team fully embodies the underdog mentality of Butler, whose ESPN recruiting page still reads NR -- for Not Rated. Two of the team’s starters, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, spent last season in the G League. Meyers Leonard, who’s starting at power forward, was iced on Portland’s bench last season until Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in late March. 

Then there’s Miami’s affinity for late-game heroics. Led by the best closer in the NBA, Butler and the Heat are 6-1 in clutch situations this season, trailing only James’ Lakers for the best record in the league in those moments.

But the biggest revelation has been Bam Adebayo, who, similar to what Butler did in Chicago, patiently bided his time on Miami’s bench behind the Heat’s $100 million man, Hassan Whiteside. Few would blame Adebayo if he checked out while watching Whiteside’s listless play be rewarded with a starting gig. Instead, the former No. 14 overall pick is dazzling alongside Butler.

Following the surprising start and with Butler and Adebayo already racking up triple-doubles, is it time for the Heat to go big-game hunting in the trade market? Miami has all the markings of a classic “one player away” team and several league executives have pegged the Heat as the East’s most interesting team as the December 15 landmark approaches, unlocking 2019 free-agent signees to be eligible for trade. 

Is Chris Paul in their sights? Is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin? Let’s take a look at the NBA’s most surprising contender and whether they need to trade for another big-name player.

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

I mean, where to begin with this guy? Adebayo might be the best quarterback in South Florida, which, granted, isn’t saying much these days. But no team in the NBA has scored more points off of handoffs than the Heat, with Adebayo at the forefront of most of them, per Synergy Sports tracking. In a departure from Whiteside, Adebayo actually seeks bodily contact with opposing defenders on these handoffs, flicking the ball to shooters in the pocket as they curl around Adebayo’s Mack-truck-like hip-checks.

But Adebayo isn’t just a hand-off quarterback. Like Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets to much greater fanfare, Adebayo also runs Miami’s offense often. Five of his 11 assists against Atlanta on Tuesday night came after he started his dribble beyond halfcourt. Point guards almost never make an outlet pass to their center, but this happens all the time with Nunn and Adebayo. With Adebayo regularly playing the “point center” role, it’s downright dizzying for defenses to figure out who’s running the fastbreak. In fact, Adebayo has assisted more of Nunn’s baskets than the other way around.

No one’s prouder of this development and the changes in Miami this year than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who popularized the term “positionless basketball” is seeing his versatile dream come to life. His power forward, Leonard, is shooting 50 percent from downtown. His center, Adebayo, is second on the team in assists. If Adebayo added a 3-point shot, he’d be the basketball antithesis of Whiteside, whose tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room, league sources told NBC Sports. 

Heading into this season, Heat officials privately raved about how different the locker room felt compared to years past. Players were genuinely playing for each other. They were having fun again. And while that’s a common preseason refrain across the league, Miami’s 5-1 start and wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets showed that there was something different happening in Miami this season.

While Butler has gotten the headlines, Adebayo might just be Miami’s difference-marker. As of Wednesday, Adebayo ranks 10th league-wide in win shares, making him and Butler one of two team pairings among the league’s top 10 (the other duo was featured in Wednesday’s Haberstat). The Heat are also 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. And those 11 assists from Wednesday night? More than Whiteside tallied in all of his 17 starts last season combined.

Just 22 years old, Adebayo has already developed into one of the most untouchable young players in the NBA. Unless someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is put on the table, don’t expect the Heat to take trade talks involving Adebayo seriously -- not even for a future Hall of Fame point guard.

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

It’s not hard to talk yourself into Paul on the Heat. Who is more hell-bent to win a championship than Pat Riley? It could be Butler, who has never even reached the conference semifinals. It could be Paul, who, along with Steve Nash, might be the best player ever without a Finals appearance. Theoretically, those ultra-competitive spirits could fuse a bond between Riley, Paul and Butler.

Also, Paul is still playing at a high level and could really help the Heat with Goran Dragic battling nagging injuries. You need high-IQ grown-ups to win in the playoffs and Paul is definitely that (almost to a fault at times). Sharing the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hurt Paul’s box-score numbers, but the 35-year-old’s positive impact is undeniable. The Thunder are plus-59 with Paul on the floor and minus-44 with him on the bench. (Sidenote: Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the opposite scoreboard impact). 

There’s also the Banana Boat factor. The transitive property of NBA friendship suggests that Butler would get along with Paul. Butler is close with Wade. Wade is close with fellow Banana Boat member Paul. Therefore, a Butler and Paul pairing would work out, right?

Don’t hold your breath. Before trading Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City, the Rockets tried to engage the Heat on a three-team deal to reroute Paul to Miami, but the Heat resisted, multiple sources told NBC Sports. The Heat’s desire for Westbrook was “a level above” their interest in Paul, according to one high-level source involved in those talks. 

As it stands now, the Heat aren’t expected to make a run at Paul, per multiple sources. They like their locker room chemistry and aren’t actively looking to shake it up. More importantly,  Paul’s contract complicates Miami’s potential future. Paul will be 35 years old in May and is due $41.4 million next season and will be 37 when he’s due $44.2 million. A glamour market like Miami doesn’t need to make trades to acquire a star. Smaller markets like Utah, Charlotte and Portland do.

The same goes for big-name players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, each of whom, like Paul, are due north of $30 million 2021-22. Reminder: Antetokounmpo could be a free agent in 2021.

After polling executives, the league-wide sense is that Paul will remain with the Thunder this season simply because of his enormous contract. While it’s theoretically possible that Paul could agree to turn down his $44 million player option for 2021-22 to grease the wheels on a potential trade, right now, that is the longest of long shots. Besides overcoming the idea of giving up 44 million buckaroos, Paul is also the president of the players’ union and it would be a bad look to set that precedent of turning down that amount of money to make it more palatable to a team. 

If Paul were younger and didn’t have that price tag hanging over his head, he might be Miami-bound. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like a Paul-Butler partnership is in the cards, leaving Miami to hunt for help on a different level.

What about smaller fish?

Butler may not be an ideal fit with Paul, but there’s one name to watch as Dec. 15 approaches: Kyle Lowry. By extending his contract to 2020-21 last summer, Toronto made him more palatable to teams like Miami that want to keep their options open for the summer of 2021. Lowry would be an title-tested upgrade over Dragic and has looked strong this season following offseason thumb surgery. 

As of this writing, it’s unlikely Toronto cuts bait on Lowry with the Raptors playing this well. Alongside MVP candidate Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry might actually be closer to a title in Toronto right now than he would be in Miami. But if Toronto’s season began to sour or if president Masai Ujiri wanted to get ahead of an offseason remake of the Raptors, the Heat could be an enticing dance partner. Would a package of 23-year-old Justise Winslow and Dragic’s expiring contract be enough to open a dialogue? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

If not Lowry, then New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick could be a target of the Heat. Despite going separate ways this summer, Redick and Butler grew close in Philadelphia as like-minded competitors and, per a source, to this day they maintain regular communication through a group chat forged in Philadelphia.

Redick signed a two-year, $27 million contract this past summer to act as NOLA’s floor-spacer and veteran mentor. Things haven’t gone to plan. Redick may have joked at media day about Zion Williamson messing with his postseason streak, but at 35 years old, Redick didn’t exactly expect to be 6-18 at this point in the season. No one in New Orleans did.

Redick would thrive in Miami. He’s shooting a blistering 44.9 percent on 3-pointers and would be a sniper in Miami’s hand-off offense. Redick and Joel Embiid cooked teams with that action last season, making Redick an ideal fit next to Adebayo (Philly ranked No. 1 in points off handoffs last season).

The problem with Redick is that New Orleans might not be ready to flip that switch just yet. There’s still time for Williamson to return and right the ship before the Pelicans are forced to make a drastic change. They didn’t acquire Redick for him to be a two-month rental. But the Heat have five players -- Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard -- near Redick’s salary number to make salary-matching easier and a few young assets that could entice New Orleans to act. Would the Heat put Nunn on the table to acquire Redick? I’d do it if I’m the Heat.

Another floor-spacer to monitor is Davis Bertans, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player alongside Adebayo, Siakam and Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham. Bertans makes the Wizards competitive, but he could make a borderline contender like Miami into a legitimate Finals threat. 

With a $7 million contract that expires in the summer of 2020, Bertans would be more affordable salary-wise than Redick. It also means the Heat would have to toss more sweeteners into the deal to make it palatable for Washington. The Heat only have two of their next seven second-rounders and can’t trade a first-round pick until 2025.

Teams like Miami will be making calls on Bertans, who figures to be the Nikola Mirotic of this year’s trade deadline. But the Latvian may be playing his way off the trade market. At 27 years old, he fits in line with Bradley Beal and John Wall’s long-term trajectory. Don’t be surprised if Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard signs him to an extension and keeps him for the long haul. He’s been that good. 

Whether Bertans remains available or the Heat chase someone like Redick or Lowry, it’s clear the Heat are better positioned to add a solid rotation player than a max-salaried All-Star like Paul, Griffin and Love. It’s tempting for Miami to go all-in and try to load up for the 2020 NBA Finals, but that route makes more sense for a small-market team.

The allure of a 2021 free agent class that could feature Antetokounmpo, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo is too good to pass up.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.