Stern has no regrets over fining Spurs, but Game 1 proved Popovich’s point
MIAMI — NBA commissioner David Stern said Thursday that he has no regrets about his decision to fine the Spurs $250,000 for strategically resting four players during a nationally-televised game against the Heat in November and that the fine was warranted because he felt San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s desire to give his players extra time off wasn’t genuine.
“Pop is a great coach, a Hall of Famer, and a visionary,” Stern said, before the Spurs beat the Heat 92-88 in Game 1 of the Finals in Miami. “But on this one he wasn’t resting Danny Green. It was a game that was being played. I know it, you know it and he knows it.”
That’s hard to swallow. The only game Popovich appears to be playing is called “win a fifth championship.”
A quick rewind: Popovich elected to send Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Green back to San Antonio rather than make them come to Miami and sit on the bench in street clothes. The game against the Heat was San Antonio’s final game of a six-game, nine-day road trip. The Spurs were 5-0 on the trip entering Miami and faced a key game two days later against the Grizzlies, a division rival that wound up advancing to the Western Conference finals this season. By sending his four players home, Popovich was able to give them three days off consecutively.
This was not the first time Popovich has strategically rested his players in recent years. He’s used the second night of back-to-backs or other trying schedule circumstances to allow his key players extra recuperation and rest.
“We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, rather than a popular decision,” Popovich told reporters before the Heat game, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s pretty logical.”
However, the NBA was apparently more upset this time around because no real notice was given, because a high-profile match-up on TNT was being ruined, because paying fans attending the game in person were not receiving the product they expected, and, perhaps, because Green is only 25 years old and he averaged less than 30 minutes a game this year. It’s possible Stern felt Popovich’s decision was a snubbing of the nose in retaliation for the tough scheduling circumstances of playing the defending champions on the road at the end of a long trip.
Before the Heat-Spurs game in November tipped, Stern issued an apology on behalf of the league and promised to deliver “substantial sanctions” to the Spurs for Popovich’s “unacceptable” decision. The $250,000 fine followed shortly thereafter, with an NBA statement that said the Spurs “did a disservice” to the league’s fans and that the resting was “contrary to the best interests of the NBA.”
Stern’s stance and the size of the subsequent fine, very large by NBA standards, caught many by surprise and led to loud criticism, particularly among coaches and former coaches, who believe roster management and strategic resting of players should be governed completely under the coach’s domain.
‘‘Whatever is going to help your team win, a coach is going to do,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, according to the Associated Press. “Because if you don’t and it hurts your team then you’re the one that won’t be around. … We’ll [strategically rest players] when we want to do it and we should be able to do it. It could be early in the season, the end of the season.’’
Former NBA coach and current ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy was particularly adamant in defending Popovich.
“The commissioner to me, I understand his disappointment and frustration,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t understand him fining a team. This has been happening forever under his watch, healthy players sitting out games. I don’t understand the outrage today about that thing. Last year, Gregg Popovich sent all three guys home for two games at the end of the year. People said, ‘This one was on TV.’ Well, every regular season game is either important or it’s not. I just don’t understand opening up this can of worms.”
Briefly defending the fine in December, Stern said that the penalty shouldn’t be framed as a response to a coaching decision. He expanded on that logic on Thursday.
“I do think we have some obligation to our fans to come up with some system, despite the disclaimers of our owners that has some kind of guarantee that if you buy a ticket for a particular team, that you might see a representative sample of that team,” Stern said. “And that’s the dilemma recognizing that there are games to be played within games. Of course I would never, never tell a coach that he shouldn’t rest a player that needs rest. We understand that completely. And that’s not what we did.”
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was one prominent voice who came to Stern’s defense, citing the importance of the television product.
“Everybody who planned to watch San Antonio vs. Miami on TNT, we’ve got disappointed customers all over the place,” Cuban said in December, according to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. “When I say our biggest customer, TV is our biggest customer. So I’m not saying San Antonio did the wrong thing. I’m just saying I understand exactly why the league did what they did. I tried to find every angle not to [side with Stern], but I do know who pays our bills. That is the driver for all things financial in sports — period, end of story. And when you [mess] with the money train you get [fined].”
“Hopefully, he can see things from my perspective, too,” Popovich said in November of any fan missing out on seeing his players, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
One key twist to this story: San Antonio advanced to the Finals for the first time in six years this season thanks to major contributions from a 37-year-old Duncan and a 35-year-old Ginobili. And, after the Spurs’ Game 1 victory, what did the Heat’s two biggest stars complain about? Their team’s energy level down the stretch.
“The fourth quarter was the difference,” LeBron James said. “I can see it on a few of our guys’ faces. Felt a little fatigued, still a little banged up from that seven-game [Eastern Conference finals] series. [The Spurs] looked like they were rested in the fourth quarter. They took advantage of that.”
Dwyane Wade added: “Obviously I thought that we were a little fatigued, honestly, in the fourth quarter, looking around. We looked like a team that came off a seven-game series.”
Yes, the Spurs benefited from nine days off in advance of Game 1 because they swept the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals, whereas the Heat had a two-day turnaround after going seven games against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. There’s no question about that.
But surely fatigue and energy are subject to cumulative effects: Popovich has limited Ginobili’s minutes over the last two years and he has carefully managed Duncan’s playing time for almost a decade now, cutting him all the way back to 30.1 minutes per game this season. Even Parker, a 31-year-old All-Star, played only 32.9 minutes per game this year, five minutes a night less than James.
San Antonio’s sharp play late — combined with a number of major stars missing the playoffs altogether this year due to injury– only underscores how silly it is to insist that teams put out a “representative sample” of their players in every single early-season contest, regardless of schedule dynamics, age, workload and whatever other factors coaches deem appropriate. Expectations from the general public — and especially within the league office — need to change when it comes to resting players. The greater good in strategically resting players is really good; San Antonio’s energetic, confident, low-turnover performance in Game 1 is all the evidence we need.
Having star players ready when it matters in the Finals — and having those players last years longer than most people thought — is a master’s work that should have been allowed to unfold without clumsy interference from the league office. Stern’s compliment to Popovich was very generous, but maybe it should have been accompanied by an apology, a refund on the fine and an expression of gratitude for the quality of team he brought to the Finals this year.