San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich was correct in looking out for the well-being of his 30-something all-stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and giving them some much needed rest after playing five road games in eight days. Popovich didn’t violate any rules and was well within his rights as a coach to determine who played and who sat in a nationally televised game against the defending champion Miami Heat.
NBA Commissioner David Stern was correct looking out for the league’s television partners, whose money is the foundation of a multibillion dollar industry that allows Popovich and his players to live quite comfortably. Stern apologized to fans and fined the Spurs $250,000 for not providing paying customers and home viewers the expected product in a marquee matchup featuring teams that could potentially meet in the NBA Finals.
Both made mistakes in how they handled the circumstances surrounding the Spurs’ 105-100 loss on Thursday in Miami. Stern, however, was further out of bounds for his rapid overreaction and indignation in deciding to punish Popovich and the Spurs for running the team as they see fit.
In his 28 years as commissioner, Stern has been able to build the NBA’s brand of entertainment on the backs of superstars. The exorbitant contracts from TNT and ESPN came as a result of being able to showcase the top talent. But Stern was quick to condemn San Antonio for using understudies instead of an all-star trio that often has been unfairly labeled as boring and rarely draws large audiences in the first place.
Popovich had no say in releasing a schedule that would place his team in a situation in which it would play the fourth game in five nights against a Heat team that was playing its third game in 12 nights. And he deserves credit for being completely transparent about resting his stars – as well as starter Danny Green – and not assigning them some bogus injury or ailment. Popovich made a mockery of the practice last season, when he sat Duncan and listed the reason as, “Did Not Dress – Old.”
But Popovich also thumbed his nose at the league by booking the four players on a Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to San Antonio and not bothering to bring them to Miami. Though Popovich made a similar move last season before a game in Phoenix, his blatant lack of subtlety in completing a stunt that would embarrass the NBA before a national audience is what set Stern ablaze.
Stern would’ve been better served to wait before releasing a statement promising “substantial sanctions” before the short-handed Spurs actually played and nearly upset the Heat in one of the more entertaining games of the season. Better yet, he could’ve handled the situation behind closed doors instead of now taking the NBA down a slippery slope of determining when a team does “a disservice to the league and our fans.”
This wasn’t the first time a team has rested players, nor is San Antonio the first team to be punished for it. The Los Angeles Lakers were fined in 1985 and 1990 for keeping stars out of games, and it has become a regular late season occurrence for teams preparing for the playoffs – and, frankly, for lottery teams tanking in hopes of getting a higher draft pick.
So, are teams now only able to sit players after qualifying for the playoffs? Is rest no longer an option for older players during a grueling 82-game schedule? Will teams get fined for consistently putting an inferior product on the floor?
And what would the punishment have been if the Spurs won the game?
Stern’s decision creates a major hassle for his eventual replacement, Adam Silver. Silver takes over when Stern steps down in February 2014, but he already stated last April that the league would not discipline teams for the practice.
“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” Silver said then. “And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”
Popovich has helped the Spurs become one of the league’s model franchises, leading them to four championships. The Spurs have consistently remained among the elite, even as Ginobili and Duncan get older, but they haven’t won a title or reached the NBA Finals since 2007. Popovich has made monitoring health and player maintenance a priority in recent years.
The loss to Miami was just one out of 82, easy to laugh off or dismiss. But in the end, the controversy isn’t only about Popovich or Stern. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Green were complicit in the game plan, willingly sitting out a game against the defending champions rather than competing. The greater issue is whether that has played any role in keeping them from winning another ring.