Four years ago, I was with commissioner David Stern, but he wasn’t with me.
Now that he is, I’m no longer with him.
Back then, on Feb. 3, 2009, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich brought his team to Denver on a red-eye out of Oakland, Calif., for the second of back-to-back games, a circumstance that infuriates coaches throughout the National Basketball Association.
Between the late departure, the time change and the length of the flight, the traveling team in this situation seldom gets to bed in Denver before the sun comes up. Before Miami squeezed out a win a couple of weeks ago, visitors were 2-26 in such games dating back roughly to Pop’s 2009 protest, when he left his top stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Michael Finley — on the bench throughout the game in Denver.
The circumstance that night was exacerbated by the fact that the game in Oakland had gone to overtime, meaning the Spurs departed even later than usual and their stars played even more minutes than usual — 43 for Parker, 42 for Duncan, 36 for Finley, 35 for Ginobili.
It was also the second contest of an eight-game, cross-country road trip, which might have made Popovich even more ornery than usual, if that’s possible.
The Nuggets beat the Spurs bench (just barely, 104-96). In the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News, I railed against Pop’s decision on behalf of Denver fans who had shelled out big money to see the Spurs stars only to be treated to a development league cast instead. It was enough of an issue, even then, that Sports Business Daily reviewed the available commentary.
From the fan’s point of view, this argument is still valid, and it’s purportedly the one Papa Dave, the commissioner, has quite suddenly adopted. NBA ticket prices are ridiculous as it is; the value proposition only works if fans get to see the stars they’ve paid to see.
At the time, Papa Dave did nothing. As recently as last season, NBA brass said it would be a mistake to infringe on a coach’s right to deploy his players as he saw fit. After all, coaches routinely rest star players in the spring as the playoffs approach.
Evidently, in his waning days as commissioner — Stern plans to retire Feb. 1, 2014 after 30 years on the job — it suddenly occurred to Papa Dave that this is, in effect, a rebellion against his gravy train. Everyone in the association knows it plays too many regular season games too close together. Players are much more likely to get hurt when they’re tired, and certain machinations of the schedule — four games in five nights, for example — make it almost inevitable that players will be tired.
But this is what fuels a money-making machine that Stern estimates will generate $5 billion this season. Alone among coaches, Popovich is willing to stand up on behalf of his players and call out toxic scheduling in a highly visible way.
In the latest instance, he didn’t merely hold his stars out of the game, he sent them home. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Danny Green were on a commercial flight to San Antonio before the Spurs and Heat tipped off in a nationally-televised game from Miami. It was the Spurs’ fourth game in five nights at the end of a six-game road trip.
Pop’s ploy could not have been entirely unexpected. He has done this on a semi-regular basis since that protest in Denver four years ago. He held his big three out of three games last season, including a game in Utah in which Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were not present.
For some reason, Stern chose this instance to change the association’s position. He issued this statement before the game:
“This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”
Keep in mind that Stern’s heir apparent, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, said this just last April:
“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams. And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”
True, last season’s schedule was even more cramped than usual because of the lockout that delayed it, but this Popovich tactic goes back well beyond that and it never prompted league action before.
“If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I would want them to see everybody, and if they weren’t there, I’d be disappointed,” Popovich acknowledged before Thursday’s game. “So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective. My priority is the basketball team and what is best for it.”
The subtext may be what bothers Stern more than the offense to fans at a handful of games. Each time he holds out his headliners, Popovich is signaling his disdain for toxic scheduling. In truth, it is this scheduling, not Pop’s response to it, that undermines the integrity of NBA competition.
Let’s face it: The NBA regular season means next to nothing. It is almost entirely for the purpose of generating cash. Every decent team (16 out of 30) makes the playoffs, which is when the actual competition for championships begins. That’s still five months away.
What Stern is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with our raking in the cash!”
What Pop is basically saying is, “How dare you interfere with my pursuit of a championship!”
Duncan is now 36. Ginobili is 35. Even Parker is now 30. If Popovich and the Spurs have any hope of winning a fifth NBA title before this great combination is finished, they must allocate their time on the floor wisely. Truth is, Pop could sit them for the rest of the season and San Antonio would still qualify for the playoffs.
There are those who say he should rest them one at a time so as to be less obvious about it. But the truth is that certain games pose the greatest danger because the schedule makes it inevitable a team’s big-minute players will be exhausted for those games. Popovich does not want to risk any of his main guys in those circumstances.
So I’ve come around to Pop’s point of view. I get that it’s unfortunate for the fans who buy tickets to those particular games, but that’s on the association for squeezing every dollar from them that it can.
The issue is indeed the integrity of competition, but it’s not the small picture of a single night. It’s the big picture of the integrity of NBA competition as a whole. Coaches must be able to deploy their players in the best long-term interests of their championship aspirations.
Pop is making a statement not just about rest and recovery here. He’s making a statement about the integrity of the game. And he’s right.