In the second game of a brutal four-games-in-five-nights stretch, the Spurs will rest Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard tonight when they face the Grizzlies in Memphis. Both players ostensibly have sore left knees, dictating the night off.
The timing could not be worse for the Clippers, who are a half game behind the Grizzlies in the Western Conference standings and would of course prefer that Memphis face a full strength Spurs squad -- you know, like the one the Clippers have played against four times this season. With Manu Ginobili also out because of a strained hamstring, the Spurs will head to Grizzlies missing three of their top six players.
This is nothing new for Gregg Popovich, and I've been critical of the practice in the past. To me it's a question of competition. In any league, there's an implicit contract to compete every night. What is the point of building a balanced schedule if it can be unbalanced at the whim of a enigmatic super-genius coach?
The league as well objected to Pop's practice of resting his stars without justification -- but apparently for very different reasons. The league levied a fine on the Spurs for resting Ginobili, Duncan, Parker and Danny Green during a TNT game against the Heat in Miami. Given that the Spurs have never gotten another fine, despite resting players in a similar manner many other times, it tells you that the league cares more about their TV partners than about fair competition. It's not surprising, but it is disappointing.
Of course Popovich and the Spurs are being more coy about the decision this time around, listing knee injuries as the reasons for resting Duncan and Leonard. They didn't bother providing any fake injuries when the Spurs were in Miami, so the NBA has at least taught Popovich one lesson -- stop being so honest; go ahead and lie and everything will be fine.
Do Duncan and Leonard have sore knees? Sure they do. As do 400 other NBA players after five months and 70-plus games of NBA basketball. But Duncan knew Pop was likely to do this, and told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News that he would lobby the coach to let him play against the Grizzlies. I guess all that lobbying really did a number on his knee.
There's no easy answer to this question. Popovich understands all too well the importance of having his aging roster fresh for the playoffs (though age is of course a poor excuse in the case of the 21 year old Leonard). But with Memphis in the midst of a heated battle for playoff position, a half game behind the Nuggets and a half game ahead of the Clippers, it's impossible for folks in Denver and L.A. not to notice big gaps in the Spurs lineup tonight.
Consider this: Miami had already clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference. If the Spurs were worried about the toll of four-games-in-five-nights on Duncan's knees, why not rest him against the Heat? That loss hurts no one but the Spurs. Losing in Memphis is a very different proposition, directly impacting two other teams with just two weeks remaining in the season. For that matter, the Spurs next game is against Orlando. Why, out of those three games, would you choose the team locked in a tight playoff race as the opponent to which to gift a shorthanded squad? Pop's a genius, he's eccentric, I get all that. But isn't this kind of a dickish thing to do?