The Los Angeles Clippers are unknowable, and they seem to like it that way.
Kawhi Leonard sat out L.A.'s 129-124 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, missing the front end of a back-to-back set as part of a load management plan. That phrase, "load management," which only entered the NBA lexicon in the past year or two, might as well come with a trigger warning.
Some derided the Clippers' decision to sit Leonard against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. The pull quote of the day came from ESPN's Doris Burke, who said on ESPN Radio: "Kawhi not playing, to me, is ridiculous."
Burke was more nuanced than the aggregators would have you believe, and she wasn't alone. But the thrust was that Leonard should want to play against the reigning MVP and a potential title contender in front of a national audience. The implication being: If he's a competitor, he has to be out there.
The response from the NBA, which has authority to fine teams for scratching healthy players (just ask Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs), green-lit the Clippers' decision, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn
NBA spokesman Mike Bass on Kawhi Leonard: "Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league's resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA's director of sports medicine.."
L.A.'s operation within the strict interpretation of the rule didn't satisfy the complainers or the back-in-my-day-ers. Those inclined to wring hands or shout on TV freaked out a little anyway. Meanwhile, the Clips and Leonard were unperturbed.
This isn't a problem with a clear fix. The overarching issue is the relative unimportance of the regular season. It doesn't matter enough in general, and it definitely doesn't matter equally to all 30 teams. In fact, a good way to figure out which organizations are most serious about competing for a championship is to see how confident they are in treating the regular season as a half-speed dress rehearsal.
Granted, the priorities of the teams lucky enough to approach the season that way don't align with those of ticket-buying fans and eyeball-seeking television networks. That's a problem.
But move past all of the competing monologues on load management, toughness and what the players owe fans, and you'll see something interesting: a mostly inscrutable team telling us something about itself.
Leonard sitting a game almost everyone outside his organization wanted him to play showed that the Clippers are all business.
The Clips aren't being withholding. It isn't like they're teasing the league or its fans. Instead, they've taken on an almost Spurs-ish embrace of a competitive advantage. Why reveal to anyone exactly how great they are? Why tip their hand now? This is about the long game, and nothing else matters.
Wednesday's loss demonstrated the obvious, that the Clippers need Leonard. Coming into the game, they owned a plus-18.2 net rating with Leonard on the floor. Without him, they were at minus-9.3. Given that level of indispensability, how do we fault them for making the smart, cautious play?
L.A. could have rested Leonard against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday instead. But the decision to give him a night off against the Bucks feels significant. It seems as though the Clips, in an almost Popovichian way, purposely snuffed out whatever drama might have been attached to a matchup of this magnitude. They defused the narrative and nixed the potential rivalry.
Never mind that this preservation of mystery could actually be more exciting for fans who will have to wait for a Leonard-Antetokounmpo showdown. Focus instead on how it shows that the Clippers are taking on the identity of their best player.
Isn't every element of Wednesday's decision traceable back to Leonard, a superstar defined by his aversion to nonsense? Validated by last year's liberal approach to regular-season rest, Leonard seems like the last guy who would ever care about an early November game. He has tested this big-picture plan before, and it worked like a charm. And because it worked so well last season, culminating in a championship, Leonard is under no pressure to prove himself.
He's past the point where November has anything to do with his legacy.
If you were hoping something as petty as pride would force him to compromise his plans just so he could face Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in a relatively meaningless game, well...try again.
Leonard and the Clippers are aligned in their quiet dismissal of the trivial.
The upshot of that alignment is that we might not get to see the Clippers' full strength until they have to summon all of it in the playoffs.
Load management will surely be a season-long norm for Leonard, but it'll also be part of the story for Paul George, who is set to return soon from a pair of shoulder surgeries. With those two sitting semi-regularly, it may take months until we know what the Clippers look like with two superstars and a trimmer rotation.
We had no idea last year's Toronto Raptors were a legitimate championship-caliber team until they showed us in May and June. And though Leonard had spent plenty of time on the list of the league's best players, we didn't know he belonged right at the top until he led that Raptors team to a ring with one of the greatest individual postseasons in NBA history.
There's a blueprint for what we're seeing, and Leonard lived it last year.
Depending on your perspective, the sense of anticipation that the Clippers and Leonard are cultivating is either thrilling or terrifying. On one hand, we suspect the Clippers have a top gear no one can match—except we won't know for sure until they have to shift into it several months from now. That's exciting!
On the other, there's an element of fear involved.
In any good horror movie, the monster is always scarier when you can't get a good look at it. Your imagination has to fill in the gaps, and imaginations can spin out of control sometimes. Does the creature have standard-issue tentacles, or are they poisonous? What kind of teeth are we talking? Serrated?
Can it smell fear?
Does it spit acid?
Nobody knows, and nobody gets to know until the monster reveals itself. By then, it's usually too late for anyone unlucky enough to be within tentacle range.
The Clippers are that monster, obscured by design, biding their time, actively preserving a sense of dread. Waiting.