If you asked a basketball fan to name the best coaches in the NBA today, they would be remiss to exclude Gregg Popovich. Pop has coached the San Antonio Spurs through 16 seasons and 4 championships since 1996. In this time, he has built a reputation for brevity. Everything he does is decisive, purposed, and certain. So when Gregg decided to rest Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Danny Green for Thursday’s road game against the Miami Heat, he did so without warning. In 16 years we’ve come to expect the unexpected. However, this move didn’t sit right with NBA commissioner, David Stern, who leveled substantial sanctions against the Spurs for suddenly DNP-ing a few of the most talented players in the league, citing that it was unfair to the fans who paid to see their favorites play. But fairness is, by definition, a two-way street, Mr. Commissioner.
The matchup in Miami was the 6th road game in 9 days for the Spurs, while it was the 1st game the Heat had played in 5 days. Is it really fair to expect some of the oldest players in the NBA to compete in all 4 contests of the consecutive back-to-back road games scheduled that week? Especially when the reigning champions have rested up for nearly a week to play on their home floor? Sometimes fairness to the fans has to take a backseat to fairness to the players. Stern is running a business, and I get that, but you can’t appeal to the humanity of the sport by directly negating the humanity of its athletes without coming off a little hypocritical. Gregg Popovich’s and David Stern’s obligations are diametrically opposed; Stern must do what he thinks is best for the league, while Popovich must do what he thinks is best for his team. In this case, the two are contrary. Running his starters ragged for the amusement of an away crowd was simply not in the Spurs’ best interest.
Now, you might say, “But it was nationally televised! What about the fans at home?” and you’d be right. I doubt the armchair observer tuned in hoping Tim Duncan would be replaced by Matt Bonner for their viewing pleasure. I know I wasn’t overwhelmed with joy. But there is more to basketball than star power, and the Spurs secondary proved that by nearly toppling the mighty Heat. In fact, the Heat trailed the Spurs into the final minute. Without the late game heroics of Ray Allen, Miami may very well have lost. That is what bothers me the most about Stern’s response (which cost San Antonio $250K, by the way). Regardless of Stern’s intentions the message he sent was blatantly disrespectful to the efforts of Gary Neal, Nando de Colo, Boris Diaw, and the rest of the Spurs that fought tooth and nail in that game. It said “This game was an asterisk. You aren’t worth the ticket price and the fans deserve better than you”. The Spurs knew everyone expected a blowout, but that didn’t stop them from gassing out for their teammates who had nothing left in the tank. They are the ones who deserve better.
Who is David Stern to decide what is fair to the fans anyway? I’ve yet to hear someone complain that the game wasn’t competitive or exciting. It’s clear to me that when our commissioner says something is “bad for the fans” what he means is that it’s “bad for business”. If the fans aren’t happy, they don’t spend money. So don’t try to tell me this isn’t about ratings, dearest David. It doesn’t seem to bother you when coaches rest their players just before the playoffs. Could it be you don’t want them getting injured before you can cash in? So why would it be such a problem for Gregg Popovich to protect his stars from the horrendous scheduling? Every coach has a responsibility to their players. Sometimes that takes precedence over the business of the business. If I were a betting man, I’d guarantee Pop would do it again. The great ones always do.