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Managing a load of expectations

Reactions to the ongoing Kawhi Leonard load management saga have struck to the core of fandom in the consumption of Toronto Raptors content. There is sharp division among the chat rooms and comment sections, the subreddits and Twitter timelines. Some fans are outraged by Leonard sitting for so many games while ostensibly healthy. Others understand it. Neither is wrong.

There’s more to being a Raptors fan than watching the games. Fanhood includes buying jerseys, reading articles (like, oh hey, this one!), and even interacting with sports writers on public platforms like comment sections and Twitter. The load management saga has taken its toll on Raptors writers, who find themselves repeating the same tired old lines countless times over the course of the season. It can be wearisome.


But really, what are journalists supposed to say? Kawhi Leonard is going to sit a bunch of games, and it probably won’t matter in terms of the Raptors’ success this season. In the 19 games Leonard has sat, the Raptors have won 14 games, good for a 74 percent winning percentage, which is practically identical to the Raptors 72 percent on the year. When Leonard has sat, Kyle Lowry has been more aggressive and more involved. But that trend has lessened of late, which would lend itself towards the simple argument of ‘who cares?’ If the Raptors still win, then why get upset if Leonard isn’t playing? It isn’t quite that simple.

Load management isn’t an entirely new concept, as Greg Popovich popularized the concept of resting uninjured players with the San Antonio Spurs. But the phrase ‘load management’ has only recently entered Toronto’s lexicon, as it was coined by Toronto Director of Sports Science Alex McKechnie.

“I said last time we were on TV last week, I said to Isiah and those guys, I said this is my rookie season in load management, and they said it’s ours, too,” said Nurse on the subject before Toronto’s game against the Houston Rockets.

Writers can repeat over and over that McKechnie built a plan along with Leonard, Nick Nurse, and others, and that the team is following the plan. Correction: the team is winning while following that plan. Beat guys can point towards the pre-existing plan, and the Raptors’ continued success, as justifications for Leonard’s absences. But those answers fail to strike at the deeper questions, so they fail to satisfy a portion of followers.

Fans know that the Raptors are resting Leonard for a variety of reasons. They know that a cause of Leonard’s breakup with the Spurs last season was that he lost trust in the medical staff in San Antonio. Fans know that players perform better in the short and long term when they rest for 10-30 games a season instead of grinding through 2000+ minutes that stars can play in the regular season. Fans know that Toronto frankly doesn’t need Leonard to win in the regular season (and that the regular season shouldn’t matter to this iteration of We the North, which has consistently underperformed in the playoffs after romping through consecutive regular seasons.)

But a lot of fans don’t care. They have to do their jobs every day, so why don’t players who are getting paid many millions of dollars more? Fans pay huge portions of their disposal income (which is scarce for Toronto residents, let me tell you) on home tickets, so load management is a slap in the face when Leonard doesn’t suit up for home games.

There are different ways to consume your favourite sports team. To value loyalty is reasonable for fans who have followed the same team for decades. To value skill is reasonable for fans who have never seen their team win.

After all, what is being a fan? Is it wanting, above all, for your team to win a championship, and forgiving – and even embracing – the bumps and bruises along the way in search of higher odds of playoff victory? Not to mention a better chance of re-signing a superstar. The playoff ends justify the load management means. Those fans accept when Leonard sits, sagely nodding and reciting the MLSE mantra that a healthy Leonard is a happy Leonard, and a happy Leonard will be a playoff killer. This is the natural mindset for Trust the Process Philly fans, who waded through years of garbage in the knowledge that there would be gems at the bottom of the can.

Is being a fan living and dying with every second of Raptors basketball, so tense and frantic during a meaningless February game that you hide under the table and peek through fingers over your eyes during clutch minutes? For some fans, there are neither means nor ends. There is only the moment, so terrifying and thrilling that it expands to fill every chasm of the season, pre-making every choice a fan can make. Those fans cannot stand the load management saga, too enthralled and engrossed with the grind to bother about mathematically improving chances at an unlikely championship.

It’s ok to be either, just as a wide swathe of fans will fall into neither camp. Fans gonna fan, as they say, and each experience is individual. But there are patterns. So it will happen that some anonymous internet folks will call for Leonard’s head every time he sits, and other white knights will defend the decisions. Usually, the former will happen before the game, and the latter will take place after the Raptors win regardless.

So what does load management mean? Nothing. And everything. But this isn’t one of those situations where winning will cure all ills. It hasn’t so far. And even if this is the brightest timeline, and the Raptors win a championship and Leonard re-signs, there will still be some fans upset at the load management saga. Because that’s just what it is to be a fan.

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