It says something about the tenure of David Stern as NBA commissioner that he makes me think of a Lyndon B. Johnson anecdote. When Johnson was president, the story–possibly apocryphal–goes that he was walking on an airport tarmac with a young Marine who told him, “Sir, your helicopter is over there.” “Son,” Johnson supposedly replied, “these are all my helicopters.”
In the same way, I tend to suspect that Stern thinks of all 30 teams in the NBA as “his” teams. That surely informed his statement Thursday night that the San Antonio Spurs would face “significant sanctions” for Gregg Popovich’s decision to send four key players (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Daniel Green and Tony Parker) home in advance of the Spurs’ game at Miami. Stern called the move “an unacceptable decision” in apologizing to fans expecting a battle of two of the league’s top teams.
The public rebuke and possible punishment mark a change in tone from the league office. Popovich did something similar multiple times last season without any issue. In fact, Twitter quickly dug up comments from deputy commissioner Adam Silver to NBA.com last April condoning the practice. “The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” Silver said. “And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”
Obviously, the difference here is that Popovich rested his players before a game that was a significant draw on TNT. But I see no reason the league should not be allowed to change its mind on the issue, especially in the wake of feedback–definitely from fans, and possibly from other teams. The criticism seems to stem mostly from a desire to discredit Stern, not unlike partisans accusing a politician from an opposing party of “flip-flopping.” And there is a precedent, if you go far enough back. In 1990, for example, Pat Riley was fined for resting healthy players at the end of the regular season.
So we should spend less time considering how the league has treated players resting in the past and more on whether the strategy is acceptable on its own merits. First, let’s be clear that what Popovich did is not tanking by the definition I established last season because the Spurs did not try to lose the game; they simply chose not to maximize their efforts to win. Of course, thanks to a terrific effort from their reserves, they almost pulled it out anyway.
Instead, Popovich is hoping to maximize his chances of winning a championship by getting players more rest, especially in advance of an in-division matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday. It’s easy to argue that should be his right. I tend to lean toward letting coaches do what they want, but besides the fan angle I could construct a counterargument based on how Popovich’s decision also affects other teams. What if the win proves meaningful for the Miami Heat at the end of the season? What if it broke a tie for first in the East? While that seems unlikely in this particular case, such concerns have to be part of a full consideration of the issue.
Whatever the league decides, it should remain consistent going forward to be fair to the Spurs. To the extent the NBA can rethink the issue in the future, it ought to take place between seasons and be communicated accordingly to coaches ahead of time. That’s the biggest issue I have with the possibility of sanctions here–Popovich didn’t know he was doing anything wrong, which is why anything besides a warning seems excessive. Other coaches will know the rules before deciding whether to rest players heading into the playoffs. If that means players sit out due to “injuries,” so be it.
Honestly, I’m not sure taking this option out of Popovich’s playbook will hurt San Antonio much. I preface this by saying that Popovich knows far more about basketball than I ever will and understands his team and his players. Additional rest will surely help the Spurs on Saturday, but in the long run I don’t think it matters. We’re talking about a difference of about 30 minutes. That’s the equivalent of playing less than a half-minute fewer per game over the rest of the season. The way Popovich uses depth to manage his stars’ playing time on a nightly basis is a far bigger factor in how fresh the team will be come April and May.