Court Vision: All angles on Popovich vs. Stern
By Ben Golliver
As you know by now, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich drew the wrath of NBA commissioner David Stern for strategically resting four key players during Thursday’s game against the Heat. “I apologize to all NBA fans,” Stern said in a pregame statement. “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.” The Spurs then went on to give the Heat a game before falling 105-100.
Here’s a roundup of the many reactions that the back-and-forth produced.
• Chris Tomasson of FoxSportsFlorida.com reports that Charles Barkley and LeBron James had Popovich’s back.
“I’ve got to go with coach Popovich,’’ Barkley told FOX Sports Florida. “He knows what’s best for his team … The game being on TNT might have something to do with [Stern being so upset], but it shouldn’t matter. They’ve [rested players] before, so why didn’t commissioner Stern do anything about it then? Why is he doing something now?’’
“I don’t think Pop was in the wrong,’’ said Heat forward LeBron James, who scored a game-high 23 points. “It’s not in the rules to tell you that you can’t not send your guys here or send your guys home. But the commissioner will make his decision, and everybody else will deal with it.’’
• Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports goes for Stern’s throat.
This is how a franchise ought to be run, how winning is foremost importance. Popovich empowered his bench to hang with the defending champion Heat, and gave his group even greater confidence and belief for when they’re called upon again. What happened was one of the most compelling Spurs’ regular-season games, and easily the most mesmerizing game of this season.
This was a testament to the Spurs’ great scouting and player development, the great coaching and discipline. This was the ultimate testament to the Spurs’ way, and it didn’t repulse the paying public – it inspired them.
Stern could’ve waited until Friday, delivered his substantial sanctions – a naval blockade on the Riverwalk, a ban on Napa Valley imports for Popovich, whatever – but he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to embarrass Popovich throughout that national TV game, and wouldn’t you know it: Popovich embarrassed Stern because the Spurs coach has a complete understanding of his realm, his team, his players, in a way that Stern has lost touch with that with which he lords over.
• Ken Berger of CBSSports.com hits Stern with a nice line.
Popovich could’ve done what countless NBA coaches have done over the years. He could’ve told Duncan to stay at the team hotel and informed the media that he had the obligatory case of “back spasms.” Or he could’ve sent Parker back to San Antonio with a phantom case of “flu-like symptoms.” But no; he’s Pop. And since he’d never heard a word from the NBA office about resting his players in the past — and since nobody in Washington or Charlotte or Sacramento gets fined for putting a far more dreadful product on the floor 82 nights a year — Pop told it like it was.
And commissioner David Stern didn’t like it. And perhaps in a sign that his imminent retirement isn’t coming a day too soon, Stern the lawyer committed the cardinal sin of lawyering. He went to trial with a case he couldn’t win.
• Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie got a good one in too.
Gregg Popovich committed no basketball crime on Thursday. In actuality, he made life a little easier and our enjoyment much more certain once the playoff decals go down next spring. As per usual, he used his head and heart and willingly hamstrung the team he loves in order to construct a bigger, smarter picture.
David Stern used to do big things. Now, he can only rant and wrestle over minor misdeeds. And that’s the real crime.
• John Hollinger of ESPN.com scolds Stern.
Overbearing: So now we’re going to have “substantial sanctions” for this event, that the Spurs had no idea was going to provoke a response from the league despite the ample and obvious warning signals they’d given that this would happen?
Stern has just taken a running start down a mighty steep and slippery slope by essentially telling a team how to manage personnel. That’s particularly true when it’s a team trying to actually win and not that more common, depressing scenario of draft-inspired tanking. What if he orders Pop to play his guys and then Duncan gets hurt? Or at a lesser level, what if the Spurs lost a more important game upcoming against Memphis because they were tuckered out from this one and the long trip? These are the decisions coaches are making every day in this league, and they know their teams far better than Stern.
• Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk says Stern needs to tread carefully.
Stern is about to change either NBA rules or at least how the rules are interpreted and enforced by going after the Spurs with some kind of fine and punishment. And once he does that he sets a new precedent that has to be carried out for every team all season long.
And everywhere Stern and the league step with this new rule there are landmines.
With a punishment to the Spurs, the league is saying Popovich’s move — resting healthy players at the end of a road trip even if they are tired — is bad for the overall business of the NBA and cannot be tolerated. While Stern has always been about marketing and league perception first and foremost, he has not ventured into telling coaches how to coach before and a punishment to the Spurs changes that.
• Fran Blinebury of NBA.com says Popovich was wrong.
But to simply blow off a game entirely is not acceptable. Not when fans have paid good money for tickets. Not when there might be one kid in Miami who is a Duncan or Ginobili or Parker fan and is hoping to see his hero for the first time. Not when the integrity of the game insists that you try to win. And the fact that he has done it before in resting up his team for the playoffs is no legitimate excuse either.
Pop will say his responsibility is only to the franchise that signs his checks. But the success of that franchise comes from being a part of a larger enterprise, the league.
Pop will say that his job is to worry about playing national TV games in June when everything is on the line, not on a Thursday night in November. But those national TV games pay the rent, pay the salaries of players and coaches.
• Harvey Araton of the New York Times writes that the controversy did spark interest.
That will be the basis of Stern’s promised punishment, contending that Popovich and the Spurs disrespected the league’s commitment to its fans in Miami and viewers nationwide. But the league should also factor in the Spurs’ behavioral record; they have typically represented it well, even without their stars and down to nine men.
It took a late three-point jumper by the Heat’s Ray Allen to subdue the Spurs’ junior varsity in what turned out to be a compelling underdog story, “Hoosiers” at South Beach. Marketing savant that he is, Stern might even be a little envious of how Popovich turned a November N.B.A. game into a national debate on competitive ethics.
• Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus with thoughts for the league office and Popovich.
Whatever the league decides, it should remain consistent going forward to be fair to the Spurs. To the extent the NBA can rethink the issue in the future, it ought to take place between seasons and be communicated accordingly to coaches ahead of time. That’s the biggest issue I have with the possibility of sanctions here — Popovich didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, which is why anything besides a warning seems excessive. Other coaches will know the rules before deciding whether to rest players heading into the playoffs. If that means players sit out due to “injuries,” so be it.
Honestly, I’m not sure taking this option out of Popovich’s playbook will hurt San Antonio much. I preface this by saying that Popovich knows far more about basketball than I ever will and understands his team and his players. Additional rest will surely help the Spurs on Saturday, but in the long run I don’t think it matters. We’re talking about a difference of about 30 minutes. That’s the equivalent of playing less than a half-minute fewer per game over the rest of the season. The way Popovich uses depth to manage his stars’ playing time on a nightly basis is a far bigger factor in how fresh the team will be come April and May.
• Zach Lowe takes down the notion that strategic substitution is unfair to television partners.
The league’s national TV contract, worth about $930 million per season, is another issue. That contract accounts for nearly 25 percent of the league’s total basketball-related income, and TNT’s share makes up a hair less than half of that pot. The Spurs are part of a larger enterprise that earns billions in revenue largely because of television and fans. The league has some responsibility to take care of those people, and of the corporate sponsors who pay for TV ads, but I’m not sure a single nationally televised game really moves the dial. Ad buys are locked in long before Popovich makes his resting choices, and a slight decline in ratings for one or two NBA games is not going to have a real impact on ad prices amid a general rise in the NBA’s popularity.
• Steve Aschburner of NBA.com says Popovich is wrong on multiple counts.
Wrong in terms of the integrity of the game, which is the foundation of the Spurs’ championship ambitions. Wrong for ticket buyers in Miami or any other city in which the stunt gets pulled.
Wrong pragmatically — what if, like the Celtics Wednesday, the leftover Spurs lost one player to ejection and a couple to injury during the game. Wrong for TNT, which pays huge rights fees to broadcast the NBA’s showcase night. Wrong for the NBA product overall, too, in terms of something farcical in place of a potentially great matchup. If Pop didn’t like the schedule, then be Mr. Honest (he’s getting praised for not lying about phony injuries) and criticize that. But a TNT game does matter more because it attracts more casual NBA fans.
• Matt Moore of CBSSports.com was disappointed in Popovich but doesn’t want the book thrown at him.
I can admit that the move was tactically intelligent to a degree and overall harmless while still thinking “Oh, man, what a bummer.”
But doling out a disappointment is not something that allows for Stern to send down the wrath from high atop the thing. You can’t fine the Wizards for managing their cap terribly, can’t fine the Bulls for playing starters too much, and you can’t punish Popovich for taking a whizz on hardworking people in pursuit of … whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish by resting his guys in a game in November, five months from the playoffs.
• Dwight Jaynes of CSNNW.com sees Popovich making this personal.
Popovich is being irresponsible by resting all his players on the same night. I understand players need a rest, but I think, too, they don’t all need to be rested on the same exact night. Most teams figure a way to stagger those rests so that their teams still have a chance to win.
Popovich just can’t resist tweaking the league with his own patented sort of immature, like-it-or-lump it defiance.
• Sean Deveney of the Sporting News isn’t pleased with Popovich.
Those of us in the media, of course, are accustomed to Popovich’s haughtiness, his disdain for us commoners. We understand that is part of the gig, and very often, we write off Popovich’s curmudgeonly outlook as part of his gruff charm.
But this decision goes beyond the wrinkled masses of the fourth estate. This is a maneuver that should concern fans in general. If you buy a ticket for a game in mid-April, you can reasonably assume a playoff-bound team might rest players. But to send home four starters in late November is something different.
It shows an utter disdain for fans.
• Yannis Koutroupis of HoopsWorld.com writes that Stern’s sanctions won’t have any impact.
Stern has never been afraid to be on the wrong side of a slippery slope. If he does indeed sanction the Spurs, it won’t be surprising. But, it also won’t be effective either. Even if he’s technically his boss, Popovich, who refused to respond after the game due to not seeing the statement for himself, is never going to take Stern into consideration when making coaching decisions. Nor should any other coach for that matter. This is an overreach and a power play by Stern and Popovich is not one to back down from what he feels is right.
If Stern comes down heavy on the Spurs for sending their top four scorers home, all Popovich will do next time is keep them on the bench the next time he wants to rest them. But, if he doesn’t want them to play, he’s not going to play them regardless of the stage they’re playing on, how much tickets cost or what Stern threatens him with.
• David Thorpe of ESPN.com hones in on the player development angle.
No coach is better at managing his best players’ health than Popovich, and one of the ways he does this is by sometimes giving reserves big minutes. How else can he find out what they are truly capable of, since it is so hard for most players to play their best in limited minutes?
The fact that Danny Green was sent home along with some All-Stars is proof of this. He’s a key player for the Spurs. All 29 other teams could have had Green, but only the Spurs helped him become the solid player that he is. Giving him major minutes early in his tenure made a big difference. This is how the Spurs excel at player development.
• Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times writes that Popovich knows better.
So while Stern attracts the most criticism, it’s Popovich who deserves to be rapped for instigating the incident. Yes, four games in five nights at the end of a road trip is difficult. And Popovich, who has regulated his star players’ minutes like a maestro over the years, has a right to keep his players fresh. But there was a better way to do it and he knows it.
• Henry Abbott of TrueHoop argues that playing every player every game doesn’t necessarily make for an intelligent default.
Meanwhile, instead of lionizing Popovich for his smart long-term thinking, the league is punishing him in the hopes he’ll fall into line and play his guys like NBA coaches have always played them: close to 40 minutes a night until injuries make it so they can play no more.
What’s increasingly clear, however, is that “the way it has always been done” is dumber than ever. For one thing, there’s better research showing what causes injuries, and “toughing it out” through every night of a dense schedule is a rich part of the equation.
• Seth Rosenthal at New York Magazine concludes that the whole thing is pretty pointless.
So, none of this matters. Folks will freak out for a day or two, then the debate will fade away until it gets summoned by the next star-benching incident. I will say that I’ve tried to put myself in everyone’s shoes to understand the uproar, and the one perspective I find particularly interesting is that of the youthful fan attending his or her first ever basketball game. I imagine myself having plunked down over $100 for a pair of tickets for myself and my hypothetical Spurs fan daughter, Duchess Juicebox Rosenthal-Lakshmi. I imagine her expressing dismay upon the discovery that Tim Duncan isn’t even in the building. Is this a disaster, as Stern would make it out to be? No. I see it as a teaching moment — about the delightful farce that is professional sports; about Gregg Popovich, merry hobgoblin, and the art of trolling; about the wonders of Nando de Colo. The young, front-running basketball fan has much to learn from a night like last night. It’s a positive experience. The NBA — indeed, the entire concept of people making a lot of money because some kids are good at throwing stuff — is bizarre and hilarious, and if you just appreciate that, you’ll find yourself very relaxed about incidents like last night’s.