Durant’s injury, Leonard’s health and the human side of load management

Durant’s injury, Leonard’s health and the human side of load management
We’ve all seen the footage of Kevin Durant going down after his right Achilles tendon gave out, clutching his injured leg as he realized his series had ended, and long-term prospects changed profoundly in the same split-second.

Wednesday afternoon the Golden State Warriors confirmed Durant had suffered a rupture, and Durant posted on Instagram that he had already undergone surgery.

We can debate whether Toronto fans rejoiced in the immediate aftermath of Durant’s injury (correct answer: absolutely) and whether Durant’s absence will hamstring the Warriors for Thursday night’s (correct answer: most likely).

But we can’t argue anymore about whether load management works. Durant’s predicament tells us what happens in a mismatch between a player’s workload and his health. When something has to give, it’s usually the athlete’s body. This isn’t after-the-fact second-guessing. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the reality the Raptors took into account in limiting superstar Kawhi Leonard to 60 regular-season games this year.

The whole multibillion-dollar enterprise of pro sports depends on human beings and their bodies, which can break down without regard to scores and broadcast schedules and uplifting, “will yourself back from injury” storylines. We can treat players like humans with real physical limits, or we can act surprised when injuries like Durant’s happen.

But we can’t do both.

“We’re human beings, just like everybody in this room,” said Warriors centre DeMarcus Cousins after Durant’s injury. “We have life crises. We have emotions … The difference between us … is that we have to zone all that out and become these superstar athletes.”

The phrase load management is a recent addition to the pro sports lexicon and, predictably, the idea rankled some oldtimers who don’t prioritize long-term planning.

“The only time I took off is when I couldn’t walk,” Kobe Bryant told The Athletic in March.

But in other contexts, we don’t question the concept.

The scale and the stakes change with the NBA because, unlike Olympic track, the league doesn’t simply appear in the spotlight once every four years. Cable networks depend on the regular season to generate healthy ratings — both midweek and on weekends — from late October through mid-April. The league is wrapping up the third season of a nine-year, $24-billion U.S. broadcast deal with ABC, ESPN and Turner Sports.

Teams’ long-term goals often coexist uneasily with immediate needs. The Raptors, after all, could rest Leonard liberally precisely because they’re perennial contenders riding a lengthy streak of sold-out home games. A fringe playoff contender would need its stars every night, as would a team that’s struggling to sell tickets.

But every strategy from every stakeholder depends on players, not just as athletes who score points and fill seats and draw big TV audiences but as human beings whose bodies have limits. LeBron James triggered controversy when he began integrating strategic rest into his regular-season schedule. With Leonard we’ve rebranded the tactic “load management,” but it still highlights the value of recovery, especially in the playoffs, where competition grows stiffer and rest days are more scarce.

Load management doesn’t mean regular-season games don’t matter. It means the playoffs matter more. Leonard, who missed most of last season with a quadriceps injury, acknowledged as much to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols last week.

“When it got bad, we ended up taking … four or five games off,” he said. “If we didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

In contrast, Durant played 78 regular-season games, then 11 more in the playoffs before his body betrayed him the first time. The right calf strain suffered in early May sidelined him until this Monday, when he scored 11 points in 12 minutes of playing time, and buoyed the Warriors to an early lead before his Achilles tendon snapped.

We don’t know for sure that a Leonard-style load-management program would have headed off Durant’s initial calf injury, or prevented the subsequent tendon tear.

But we do know that prevention beats treatment, and that load management aims to shut you down before you get hurt. Damaged tissue can’t distinguish between a pre-season scrimmage and an elimination game in the NBA Finals, but well-planned rest can help avoid having to make that distinction.
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