Winners and losers of the 2019 NBA Draft

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USA Today

Winners and losers of the 2019 NBA Draft

Welcome to the NBA, Zion Williamson. 

There weren’t too many fireworks on Thursday night in Brooklyn, but plenty of sparklers. By my count, only 10 of the final 41 picks weren’t traded. The biggest deal -- the Atlanta Hawks slid up to the Los Angeles Lakers’ No. 4 pick that was traded to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis package.

No All-Stars were traded on Thursday night, but there will be plenty of action come June 30. Here are the winners and losers from the 2019 NBA Draft.

Winners

New Orleans Pelicans

Holy smokes did Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin net a ton of value for dropping back to No. 8. In most years, trading out of the top five of the draft would be an incredibly risky move since draft value tends to fall off a cliff at the No. 6 pick. But this isn’t most years; we’ve been hearing for months that the 2019 draft projected to be unusually shallow after Williamson, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant. Griffin obviously felt that he could slide back four slots from No. 4 and still get the player he wanted, center Jaxson Hayes.

Using ESPN’s Kevin Pelton nifty draft pick point system to help put transactions like these in perspective, the Pelicans received 3,560 points in draft pick value (1,970 for No. 8; 1,220 for No. 17; 370 for No. 35) compared to 2,450 points going to Atlanta (2,440 for No. 4; 10 for No. 57). That’s a humongous gap in value. On top of that, the Pelicans shed Solomon Hill’s $13 million contract. On top of that, the Pelicans received Cleveland’s 2020 first-round pick, which will likely turn into a pair of second-rounders.

This was a heist by Griffin, who continues to run a clinic in his opening salvo. I’m not in love with the Hayes selection at No. 8. He’s a big pick-and-roll dunker in the Tyson Chandler mold, which is a great fit on most rosters. But the Pelicans need shooters around Williamson to amplify his athleticism and Hayes hasn’t shown any range outside the paint.

The good news is that Hayes has a really good stroke at the free throw line (74 percent last season at Texas), so he can maybe stretch out and develop a jumper. With that said, Lonzo Ball may shatter the lob record with Williamson and Hayes running at the rim. Sheesh.

By making the trade with Atlanta, the Pelicans have carved out about $30 million in cap space, which they can use to buy more picks down the line or bring in some shooting talent to free up more room for the kids. Don’t be surprised if Griffin brings in Jared Dudley, who spent four and a half seasons with Griffin in Phoenix, to help coach up the locker room and bring in a 3-and-D presence on the wing. 

Oh, and by the way, they drafted the best prospect since LeBron James.

Tissue Companies

The decision to add parents to the podium made living rooms and bars instantly become filled with dust. This is the most emotional night in the NBA calendar and it’s special for the fans at home to see players as human beings rather than draft picks. 

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers needed a 3-and-D rotation player and they just snagged the best defensive wing in the draft with the No. 20 pick in Matisse Thybulle. It’s amazing how undervalued defense is on draft night. Thybulle broke the defensive scale last season at Washington averaging 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game as the free safety in Washington’s zone defense. If there’s any center in the NBA who can own the rim enough to let others roam, it’s Joel Embiid.

He can be their Robert Covington. Thybulle has shot 36 percent on over 500 3-pointers in his collegiate career. He shot just 31 percent from downtown last season, but he’s better than what he showed there. At 22 years old, he can step in right away and contribute to an already elite defensive core with Ben Simmons and Embiid. 

Sixers fans might get nauseous at the idea of trading up with Boston to pick a Washington product, but this it the back end of the draft, not the front. Also, Thybulle’s presence allowed Philly to dump Jonathon Simmons’ contract on the Washington Wizards and save an extra $1 million for their free agency pursuits.

Atlanta Hawks

League Pass All-Stars. Adding De’Andre Hunter (No. 4 pick from New Orleans via Los Angeles via crazy lottery luck) and Cam Reddish (No. 10 via Dallas for Luka Doncic), the Hawks figure to be an exciting young squad that will be fascinating to watch next season.

With Trae Young and John Collins’ defensive limitations, I love that they targeted Hunter with the No. 4 pick. He may not have the box score stats of a defensive stalwart, but Hunter played in a Virginia defense that suppresses blocks and steals. The Hawks weren’t going to let another Malcolm Brogdon slip from their fingers with two of the best offensive young players in the NBA in Young and Collins. Reddish is a question mark, but at No. 10, that’s a worthy spot for his upside.

Knicks fans

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Knicks faithful. They lost the draft lottery. Their presumed top free agency target, Kevin Durant, tore his Achilles tendon. The Pelicans traded Anthony Davis elsewhere. Just when you thought the Knicks’ offseason couldn’t get any worse … wait, good news on draft night?!

Yes, the Knicks selected RJ Barrett with the No. 3 overall pick, a Knicks pick that was met with loud cheers for the first time … ever? I have my concerns about a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot 3s or at the line efficiently, but it was nice to hear Knicks fans be happy. They got their homegrown talent who seems genuinely thrilled to be a Knick. I sincerely hope he finds his jumper, because the NBA is better when its biggest market has something to root for.

Losers

Phoenix Suns 

I really don’t know what the Phoenix Suns are doing. First, they traded T.J. Warren and his remaining $35 million over three years into the Pacers’ cap space. Warren, 25 years old, is a big wing scorer who shot 43 percent from downtown last season, providing a really good insurance policy for Indiana free agent Bojan Bogdanovic. And you give him away along with the 32nd pick for cash considerations?

This is a deal you make if you’re a title contender looking to add a premiere free agent. But the Suns are going nowhere and they punted on Warren and got next to nothing. This is a new front office led by veteran GM Jeff Bower, but I’m not a fan of their start. Maybe they have D’Angelo Russell in their sights with their resulting cap space, but even then, I don’t love his fit next to Devin Booker. Deandre Ayton will have to be Bill Russell to clean up the backcourt’s mistakes.

And then they traded down from No. 6 for Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick, but reached for the oldest player in the draft, Cameron Johnson. Look, the UNC product is an elite shooter on the wing, but I worry about his age and hip issues. Bone impingement and a torn labrum is what has devastated Isaiah Thomas’ career, so hopefully he’s put those health issues behind him. Phoenix’s brass must’ve heard that Johnson was promised shortly after No. 11 because most intel had him projected to be a late first-rounder, at best. 

For a team that finished with the second-worst record in the NBA, this wasn’t much of a reward for their futility.

Hats

I kinda like the goofy hats atop the giant manes of the draftees, but we need to update the hat logos to reflect the teams they’re actually going to play for. Do we really need to put a Lakers hat on DeAndre Hunter after that pick was traded not once, but twice? Let’s bring the draft into 2019.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards were an awful defensive team last season, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and traded Otto Porter for two score-first-and-second players in Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. With interim GM Tommy Shephard steering the decisions for the club, I expected the Wizards to target a defensive presence at the No. 9 pick, someone like Brandon Clarke who reminds me a lot of Shawn Marion with his elite finishing ability and versatility on the defensive end. Clarke is only 6-foot-8 with a short wingspan, but he had the instincts and athleticism to block over three shots a game for Gonzaga. (I love him in Memphis next to Jaren Jackson Jr.)

Instead, the Wizards went with Clarke’s teammate at Gonzaga in Rui Hachimura, who fits the mold of a younger Parker. I like Hachimura’s scoring abilities around the rim, but this team needs more impact players on the defensive end and I think they missed out on Clarke. Getting Simmons from Philly makes some sense on the wing, but then again, coach Brett Brown, looking for defensive players on the wing, didn’t trust him much at all in the playoffs. Admiral Schofield is a solid flier in the second round with the 42nd pick they netted from the Sixers, but that’s a steep price with cash considerations going to Philly. Again, where is the defense going to come from for this team? The good news is Bradley Beal is still a Wizard. No desperate moves from Washington. 

Boston Celtics

It really seems like the Celtics have given up on the 2019-20 season already. By trading Aron Baynes to Phoenix and not moving up in the draft with their bevy of picks, the Celtics have essentially reverted back to the team that rallied to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving.

But that team had Al Horford, who is an essential part to everything that they do. They’ll need Horford to compete next season, but right now, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Robert Williams will be their starting frontcourt next season. I’m not high on Romeo Langford (No. 14), but I love the Grant Williams pick at No. 24. (Jaylen Brown and Williams, the son of a NASA engineer, should stream weekly Academic Bowls.)

No one outside New England is feeling sorry for this team. But between Danny Ainge’s health scare and the surprising exodus out of Boston, this has been a sad chapter for the franchise. 

Look, they might make a run for Kemba Walker, who went to UConn just 85 miles down the road, but the comments out of the team on Thursday night suggest this will be a rebuild. Just a year ago, the Celtics held one of the brightest futures in the league. Now, they’re a cautionary tale.

Bol Bol

No one wants to be the guy that lingers in the green room on draft night, but I’m happy he landed in Denver. For the second year in a row, the Nuggets take a rehab flier on a top prospect. Last year it was Michael Porter Jr., who was the 14th pick dealing with back issues. He had a redshirt season in Denver, which might be the outcome for Bol in 2019-20 while he rehabs from a broken foot.

Bol is more than worth the flier. The son of the late NBA legend Manute, Bol is a 7-foot-2 shooter with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and has some real NBA-caliber skill. I am stunned he fell all the way out of the first round, even with the foot injury. He’s a top-10 talent. Good for the Nuggets to take a chance on Bol.

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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