This is a subject that has come up around here before, and as long as Gregg Popovich keeps coaching it will likely come up again. I wrote about it last February and again as it related to the summer Olympic badminton scandal in London (shuttlecockgate, I like to call it). Tonight in Miami, San Antonio faced the defending champion Heat with only nine players in uniform. In addition to Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard who are both injured, the Spurs were also without Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green. Why did those four uninjured Spurs skip the game? Because they were tired.
This is an ongoing stratagem for Popovich -- he knows that the NBA season is an 82 game war (which is really just leading up to the real war that is the playoffs) and that losing any single battle along the way is unimportant. The fact is that he believes his chances are better in the war if he chooses to sacrifice certain battles. And he may be right.
But it's certainly not in the spirit of competition.
Popovich pulled the rest strategy twice last season, for games in Portland and in Utah. The Spurs lost those games by 40 and 7 points respectively. Because it's Gregg Popovich, proud owner of four NBA championship rings, it's generally tolerated and in same cases lauded. Pop is a bold genius who understands the big picture. But imagine if any other coach save perhaps Phil Jackson did this.
By choosing the Heat this time he limits one avenue of potential criticism, while opening another. The Heat are in the opposite conference from the Spurs and are expected to finish the season with the conference's best record. Handing them an extra win is unlikely to make any difference in the long run. (Although it certainly could, and those who dislike Popovich's gamesmanship can cross their fingers and hope that this game ends up determining home court advantage in an eventual Spurs-Heat NBA Final next June.) Last season San Antonio handed a key win to Utah down the stretch -- the Jazz wound up passing Houston late in the season to grab the eighth playoff spot in the West.
But on the other hand, this was a game between two of the marquee franchises of the NBA, the defending champion and a team with four titles of their own. It was also on one of the NBA's main TV partners, TNT, a game for which the network has purchased exclusive rights.
San Antonio makes one trip to Miami per season. The idea of resting a perfectly healthy superstar has never been fair to the people who buy tickets for that game. You may argue that the Heat fans would be all too happy to have their odds of winning improved -- but that ignores the Spurs fans and general NBA fans who live in Miami and have just one chance per year to see Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
But it's no doubt the TV audience that got NBA Commissioner David Stern's attention. While Popovich has behaved in this exact manner many times in the past, this time Stern apologized to fans and promised "substantial sanctions" against the Spurs for their non-competitive actions.
I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.
If you think this response is heavy-handed of Stern I would ask you to recall that this is the same guy who imposed a dress code on players, unilaterally replaced the leather ball, has put a time limit on pre-game handshakes and hands out fines for the most benign of criticisms. The question isn't why has he decided to impose "substantial sanctions" now but why did he wait this long. The obvious conclusion is that behaving in a non-competitive manner is fine in the backwaters of Portland or Salt Lake City, when games are on local TV, even if it could impact the playoff race -- but do NOT mess with Marv Albert and TNT.
As it happens, the game ended up being close. The severely short-handed Spurs led by five with two minutes remaining before the Heat went on an 8-0 run, the key basket being a Ray Allen three pointer with 22 seconds left with Miami down one. But the fact that this game was close is not relevant to the discussion. After all, if New York or Brooklyn ends up a game behind Miami in the regular season Eastern Conference standings they'll have a legitimate gripe that the Spurs should have won this game. Stern is taking the position that the Spurs have an obligation to try their best every night, which they clearly did not by resting their best players, and as much as I dislike agreeing with David Stern, in this case he's right.
There's a reason for the term "the spirit of the law" -- you can't codify everything into "the letter of the law" so there will always be a gray area of activity that is not strictly speaking forbidden but is still not right. Even if that activity is in the team's long term best interests, as Pop clearly believes, it doesn't mean it is the right thing to do.
Here's what I find particularly strange about this situation though. It is an undeniable fact that the Spurs are at the tail end of a road trip, playing their fourth game in five nights. But the last two games have been blowouts. Neither Duncan nor Parker played in the fourth quarter Wednesday night in Orlando, and the Big Three's cumulative minutes in the last two games (50 for Duncan, 52 for Parker and 44 for Ginobili) have barely equaled one full game. Danny Green is 25 years old. None of those guys needed rest. Popovich was thumbing his nose at everyone in the league by resting them -- and in case anyone might have missed it, he even put them on a plane and sent them back to Texas. Apparently they were so tired they couldn't even sit on the bench with their team.
It remains to be seen what sanctions the NBA will impose -- or if Popovich gives a rat's ass. It's a slippery slope that Stern has started down here -- one that Adam Silver will have to negotiate going forward since Stern is on his victory lap. If you fine Popovich now, do you have to fine teams who rest stars in meaningless games at the end of the season? Does the size of the fine depend on the size of the expected TV audience? It's a can of worms, but one I think Stern had to open.