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Sport Opinion: Doc Rivers' shot at LeBron James stirs more debate over load management, handling of Kawhi Leonard

17:45  18 december  2019
17:45  18 december  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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JaMychal Green, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard are posing for a picture: Clippers forward Paul George (left) and forward Kawhi Leonard watch from the bench in the fourth quarter against the Suns at Staples Center.© Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports Clippers forward Paul George (left) and forward Kawhi Leonard watch from the bench in the fourth quarter against the Suns at Staples Center.

LOS ANGELES — The words will add some spice to a possible rivalry. They likely suggest that Clippers coach Doc Rivers interpreted LeBron James' dismissal of "load management" as a subtle dig on how the Clippers have handled Kawhi Leonard.

“It’s our philosophy. I don’t know what theirs are,” Rivers said of the Lakers. “I think theirs is whatever LeBron says it is, to be honest.”

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It is not fair to compare the attitude that James and Leonard have toward load management. Their views have differed mostly because of their differing circumstances.

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James sounded incredulous when questioned on if he has considered following a load management program this season.

“Why wouldn’t I play if I’m healthy? It doesn’t make any sense to me,” James told reporters following the Lakers’ win in Atlanta on Sunday. “My obligation is to play for my teammates. If I’m healthy, then I’m going to play. If coach sits me out, then I’m not healthy. It’s just that simple.”

James has played in all of the Lakers’ 27 games in his 17th NBA season after missing 27 contests last season with a strained left groin.Even if he is less than two weeks away from turning 35 years old, James has nearly mirrored his career averages in points (26.1 points) and shooting percentage (50.2%) while remaining on pace in setting a career-high in assists (10.7).

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Leonard has missed nine games because of continued complications in the patella tendon in his left knee, an injury that affected him during his final year in San Antonio and even when he won an NBA championship last season in Toronto. Because of those concerns, Leonard has not played entirely in the Clippers’ five sets of back-to-backs.

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In the Clippers’ 120-99 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday at Staples Center, Leonard finished with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting in only 27 minutes. That happened two nights after sitting in the Clippers’ loss in Chicago, which marked the second night of a back-to-back and the team’s sixth road game in eight nights.

Leonard insisted “I feel good,” as he has averaged 25.8 points on 45.9 percent shooting along with 7.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 31.5 minutes per game. Rivers admitted that Leonard has “been up and down” with finding his rhythm.

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When James was not healthy last season, he was among one of many NBA players that adopted the load management program. That included Leonard, who played 60 games last season in Toronto and still looked noticeably hobbled en route to winning a Finals MVP in June. Nearly six months later, Leonard still feels enough pain to require extensive treatment after games and on off days.

Because of their stature, James and Leonard have exerted their influence on how the Lakers and Clippers handle their respective workloads. Vogel has admitted that he often defers to James’ wishes out of respect for his stature and familiarity with his body. Rivers has done the same thing with Leonard. But the Lakers and Clippers have their medical staff work directly with James and Leonard to protect them from themselves.

James has only averaged 34.6 minutes per game, which ranks 16th in the NBA. He has appeared spry and engaged enough to help the Lakers accelerate their on-court chemistry with Anthony Davis and a dependable supporting cast, while and tying the Milwaukee Bucks for the NBA’s best record (24-4).

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“Unless we’re getting to like late in the season and we’ve clinched and we can’t get any better or any worse,” James told reporters. “It could benefit from that.”

The Clippers do not have the same luxury.  Paul George missed the first 11 games of the season while healing from off-season surgery on both of his shoulders. Leonard will likely to continue missing the first or second night of the Clippers’ remaining six sets of back-to-backs. Clippers players have missed a combined 63 games with injuries and the team has fielded 12 different starting lineups. But they have still remained a contender. While Leonard helped the Clippers absorb George’s initial absence, George’s return has minimized Leonard’s absence on back-to-backs. Their bench also leads the NBA in scoring (51.2).

“I like what we’re doing. It’s a smart thing to do,” Rivers said. “Then who knows. We’ll see at the end.”

Then, the Clippers and the Lakers will find out which team will be the healthiest for the playoffs. Regardless of how that plays out, though, the Lakers have been just as correct with their approach with James even if it differs from what the Clippers have done. Even Rivers admitted that only moments after throwing shade at the King.

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Said Rivers: “That makes a lot of sense to me.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Doc Rivers' shot at LeBron James stirs more debate over load management, handling of Kawhi Leonard

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