Toronto Star

Diva treatment part of the game

It’s when teams lose that the knives come out for stars like Leonard

- Dave Feschuk Twitter: @dfeschuk

Covering the Raptors en route to the NBA championsh­ip in 2019, it wasn’t unusual for a reporter to run into a member of the franchise’s sports science team in the lulls surroundin­g practices or morning shootaroun­ds.

Back in those pre-pandemic days, a friendly face-to-face chat might take place as a health profession­al awaited the arrival of the next patient. And when the next patient arrived, it wouldn’t necessaril­y be an NBA player or even a member of Toronto’s organizati­on. Sometimes it would be Dennis Robertson, the infamous Uncle Dennis to then-Raptors star Kawhi Leonard. It wasn’t exactly a secret the team’s training staff occasional­ly treated Robertson using the expertise and know-how it typically reserved for its roster of finely tuned profession­al athletes. Maybe it was a simple courtesy the club would afford to any family member in need — although it’s not as though other players’ uncles were seen standing in line behind Robertson. Maybe it spoke to the organizati­on’s whatever-ittakes attitude toward making the most coveted impending free agent in the sport and his entourage feel like Toronto was the best option.

Whatever the case, the anecdote came to mind after the latest report surroundin­g the dissatisfa­ction being expressed by various anonymous voices around the Los Angeles Clippers about the special treatment afforded to Leonard and Paul George last season. Various Clippers, according to a story by the Athletic’s Jovan Buha, were apparently put off by the fact that there was a widespread perception around the team that Leonard and George could dictate details such as whether or not the team would practise, or when and how long they would play.

There were teammates ticked off, apparently, that Leonard and George were the only players assigned their own personal security guards and trainers, and that Leonard was permitted to live in San Diego, from where he often commuted. There was reportedly resentment that Leonard, likely because he resided so far from Los Angeles, was sometimes late to planes and to practice.

Add it all up and the conclusion has been reached by some anonymous observers that the special treatment extended to Leonard and George led to a lack of “buy-in” from the rest of the group, which is supposed to explain how the Clippers exited the Orlando bubble in disgrace after blowing a 3-1 second-round series lead to the

Denver Nuggets.

The story, which reiterates similar post-bubble reporting, has led to plenty of sanctimoni­ous crowing from north of the border, where it’s widely assumed the Raptors tackled the task of handling Leonard masterfull­y while the Clippers, in the bumbling tradition of a hapless franchise, somehow screwed it up. Certainly a 2019 championsh­ip banner hanging in a currently abandoned arena in downtown Toronto suggests as much.

As John Madden famously said: Winning is the great deodorant. Still, if the Raptors somehow failed to get any number of the favourable breaks that allowed them to secure that championsh­ip — and make no mistake, they needed plenty of luck to go with their undeniable collection of skill and chutzpah that helped them hoist the trophy — it’s more than likely a Toronto-based writer would have sniffed out some variation of this Clippers story in the days and weeks after the Raptors exited the post-season tournament. Say the Raptors didn’t win that double-overtime Game 3 in the Eastern final and fell into an inescapabl­e 3-0 hole to the Bucks. Or imagine Leonard’s Game 7 four-bouncer against the Sixers didn’t fall and, as Serge Ibaka has since insisted was likely, the out-ofgas Raptors were eliminated in that second-round overtime.

If either of those things happened, it’s not hard to fathom how Leonard’s masterful load management would have been retrospect­ively framed as misguided diva enablement. While the Raptors were good about keeping their opinions about Leonard’s special privileges to themselves during the season, it’s since become clear there was no shortage of inhouse eye-rolling about the royal treatment afforded to Leonard during his time as a Raptor.

Fred VanVleet probably came the closest to voicing discontent in the midst of Toronto’s championsh­ip run.

“It wasn’t a matter of trusting (that Leonard’s load management would pay off ),” VanVleet told reporters on the eve of the NBA Finals. “It was a matter of waiting. ‘All right, he’s resting, but what the hell is he resting for?’ ”

Indeed, once it became clear the plan was actually working, and that Leonard was enough of a uniquely powerful weapon that he easily justified his special accommodat­ions, VanVleet began to spill something approachin­g the truth about the complicati­ons that came with catering to a star player who was as incommunic­ative as he was mysterious.

“The only thing is he doesn’t really talk a whole lot, so you never really knew when he was or wasn’t going to play and they certainly didn’t post his schedule on the wall,” VanVleet said. “A lot of times we wouldn’t find out until five minutes before he went out for the game.”

Considerin­g VanVleet was the player who generally started when Leonard wasn’t in the lineup, in other words, it wasn’t exactly an ideal arrangemen­t from VanVleet’s perspectiv­e. And it’s not hard to imagine more than a few Raptors — say, a veteran such as Kyle Lowry, who upped his year-over-year minutes with Leonard in the fold — feeling the same way.

“Throughout the season we’re all grinding, we’re all hurting, we’re all having dog days. I certainly would have liked to take some time off for my back a couple of times, but that was a plan this team had and you trust the medical staff,” VanVleet said.

You trust the medical staff, sure. But if you’re savvy to the realities of a star-driven league, you also understand the pecking order. Leonard is hardly the first NBA alpha dog to demand a list of perks to rival Drake’s tour rider. The sports-loving planet just spent a good chunk of the early pandemic watching “The Last Dance,” wherein Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson allowed his stars tremendous leeway. Michael Jordan could golf and gamble like an addict, because he played like a god. Dennis Rodman was allowed an in-season respite in Las Vegas because the alternativ­e was probably worse.

It only follows that Uncle Dennis was treated like a king for a year in Raptorland because it optimized the franchise’s chances of turning a one-championsh­ip run into something bigger. Which brings us back to the Clippers situation. The problem isn’t that Leonard and George got an off-putting amount of special treatment. The problem is they came up short in delivering the deodorant that would have covered up the smell.

 ?? ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO ?? There is growing dissatisfa­ction about the special treatment afforded to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last season in L.A.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO There is growing dissatisfa­ction about the special treatment afforded to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last season in L.A.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada