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Gregg Popovich and the Spirit of the Game


On Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs played the Trail Blazers in Portland, and Gregg Popovich chose to give his two best players, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the night off. He did this even though the Spurs had won 11 straight games. He did this even though Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter were already out of the game with injuries. The Blazers ended up winning by 40.

It was a strategic decision on Popovich's part. He couldn't care less about the winning streak. He knows that his team will lose games from time to time, and also knows that it's much more important to have his best players fresh for the second half of the season and especially the playoffs. When he was explaining the decision to reporters before the game, he described what he was doing as "putting some money in the bank."

John Raffo was fascinated enough by the decision that he posted about it. The comments from that post were interesting, and I wanted to bring some of them back to the front page because I believe it is an important discussion.

Some of the bigger questions raised had to do with the disservice this approach is doing to the fans, and the potential for impacting the competitive balance of the league beyond the Spurs. This was San Antonio's only trip to Portland this season -- fans who bought tickets to see Tim Duncan and Tony Parker didn't get what they had paid for, not because Duncan and Parker were hurt, but because Popovich felt like it was strategically advantageous for his team to rest them. Furthermore, if you look at the Western Conference standings this morning, the Blazers and Nuggets both have identical 18-16 records, with seven teams ahead of them in the standings. Eight teams make the playoffs. San Antonio just handed Portland a free win. And who is the Spurs next opponent, the one for which Duncan and Parker will be so well-rested? That would be Denver, tonight. So if you're a Denver fan, Popovich's decision is anything but isolated to its impact on the Spurs -- it will likely keep Denver in the ninth spot at the All Star break. Sure, it's a 66 game season and there are over 30 games left that will mix things up further. But it's certainly conceivable that a Portland win in a game they could have lost will make a difference in the final analysis.

For me, citizen Erik O cut to the heart of the matter with this comment:

I can't, in good conscience, support that kind of "basketball"
Just like I can't support the Hack-a-Shaq defense. Neither thrown games nor Hack-a-Shaq defense is good for the spirit of the game, and they're not what the fans paid for.

In a nutshell, they're good for winning, and bad for basketball.

There are certain things that players and coaches might do because it gives them a competitive advantage -- this rest scenario is one, hacking is another, flopping is a third (though in the case of flopping it's the player, not the coach) -- but if it's not in the "spirit of the game" then ideally it should be discouraged. Of course, it's hard to legislate the "spirit" -- that's why we have to discuss the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law.

It's worth noting that Popovich is one of the leading practitioners of the "Hack-a-Shaq" over the years, so we can safely assume that he does not give a flip about Erik's "spirit of the game" -- Pop wants to win, and he's done that pretty well over the years

For those who wish to abide by the spirit of the game, it's a fine line of course. Everyone would agree that it's better to foul DeAndre Jordan and send him to the foul line when he's got the ball next to the basket and is about to dunk. Why is that OK, but it's not OK to foul him at half court? Both are calculations to foul intentionally for a competitive advantage.

And then of course there was the Clippers-Grizzlies game in 2006. The Clippers HAD to tank that game. I've argued in the past that they had a fiduciary responsibility to lose that game -- more home games in the first round, plus a better chance of advancing to the second round, meant more playoff ticket revenue. It was a simple calculation. The NBA's insane seeding of playoff teams at that time (since modified) was the real problem, but the Cilppers definitely wanted to be finish sixth, not fifth, and the strategy paid off with the most successful post season in Clippers history.

As you all know, I went to Pepperdine, and if you are a Wave and a sports fan, you follow men's volleyball. Back in 2005, Pepperdine had won the regular season title in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (the MPSF, essentially the only conference that matters in men's volleyball). The NCAA Final Four in volleyball consists of the winner of the the MPSF tournament, a representative from the East, one from the Midwest, and an at-large team, always another MPSF team. The Final Four that year was being held at Pauley Pavilion, hosted by UCLA, and the Bruins had come in second in the MPSF during the regular season. But Long Beach State had upset UCLA in the semi-finals of the tournament, setting up a tournament final between the Waves and the 49ers.

With the possible exception of that Clippers-Grizzlies game, I've never known a more blatant case where a team would benefit from losing. If Pepperdine won the MPSF tournament, UCLA would get the at-large bid and have home court advantage in the Final Four. If Pepperdine lost, Long Beach State would get the automatic bid, Pepperdine would get the at large bid, and UCLA would be odd man out. Oh, did I mention that UCLA had never lost a post-season volleyball match at Pauley Pavilion? NEVER.

Coach Marv Dunphy played his normal team, his normal game, and Pepperdine beat Long Beach State in the tournament final handily. The Waves went on to beat UCLA in the national championship match, winning Marv's fifth national title, 27 years after his first one.

My dad is a friend of Marv's, and he had a chance to ask him why he risked it, why he didn't throw the Long Beach match and avoid the Bruins. He said, "Because that's not how you play the game." Erik O would approve.