When you consider the success of long-term NBA contenders, there’s perhaps no controversy more irrelevant than the San Antonio Spurs’ decision to bench their stars in their nationally televised contest on a Thursday night in November against the Miami Heat.
Coach Greg Popovich’s decision to sit Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green will be only an afterthought come playoff time, when the Spurs resume sitting in their annual spot atop the Western Conference. At 13-4, San Antonio is only a half game back of the conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies despite easing Ginobili back into the rotation by playing him less than 23 minutes per game off the bench.
Clearly, Popovich’s decision was made with a watchful eye fixated on the playoffs, the real indicator of a successful 2012-13 campaign for the Spurs. The team finished first the West last season, but their strong regular season became irrelevant when the team blew a 2-0 lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
For this veteran-laden team destined to cruise into the playoffs, regular season success is secondary to ensuring the health of their core players going into the postseason, a fact that’s just as a true for so many other contenders as the grind of an 82-game season wears on.
However, when the NBA levied a hefty $250,000 fine against the Spurs for sitting their star players against the Heat, league Commissioner David Stern sent a strong message that such practices will not be tolerated in order to preserve the integrity of the NBA’s regular season.
The sanctions placed upon the Spurs only highlight the hypocrisy of Stern reign atop the basketball world. The bottom line is that it is simply unfair to expect these athletes to endure the grind of the 82-game regular season, in which teams are periodically scheduled to play four games in five nights on the road, as was the case when the Spurs opted to rest their most valued players.
Regardless of the perhaps unrealistic expectations placed upon the players, most teams trot out their expected lineup without resting seemingly healthy, if not fatigued, core rotation players. However, Popovich’s executive decision to sit his aging stars shouldn’t be punished; instead, it should be lauded as a choice that could potentially change the landscape of the NBA.
In Major League Baseball, it’s not uncommon for managers to rest their most important players, a policy that’s become commonplace due to a schedule that includes no built-in rest to protect the health the players who make the sport watchable. Although this practice hasn’t become conventional among NBA teams, Popovich’s decision to display it in front of plenty of eyes on national television could be seen as a public message that the NBA’s regular season is too long and meaningless.
Whether Popovich benched his star players to send a message to the league or merely in the interest of his team’s long-term prospects, we will never know. But one could argue that it’s not only his prerogative to ensure that his players are healthy going into the playoffs—it’s also his job.
Every coach has the right to make the personnel decisions that best situate their team for “success,” whatever that term constitutes for a given team. For the Spurs, success isn’t determined by their regular season, it’s hinged upon how far Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can carry the team in the playoffs. Thus, it’s Coach Popovich’s responsibility to keep these players fresh for their inevitable playoff run.
For Stern to step in and impose sanctions upon Popovich and the Spurs for running their team the way they see fit is wrong on so many levels. The league office making personnel decisions on behalf of coaches sets a scary precedent; hypothetically speaking, why couldn’t the league demand that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade play in the Heat’s last game of the regular season, even if the team has already locked up their playoff seeding and has nothing to gain from a meaningless regular season game?
Meanwhile, the league has done nothing to address the issue of tanking, in which teams at the bottom of their conference standings play a less-than-optimal rotation to lose games in order to give themselves better odds at receiving the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.
Lost in the shuffle is that the starless-Spurs nearly made a fool out of Stern by beating the Heat with a second-string lineup. Would San Antonio had been fined if the likes of Nando de Colo, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter had knocked off the defending champs on Thursday?
Clearly, Stern fined the Spurs in hopes of sending a league-wide message that the benching of stars will not be tolerated in the NBA. But if he was truly interested in protecting the sanctity of regular season games, he would shorten the regular season to give each game more meaning. That way teams would have less incentive to tank games and sit their core players to prepare for the playoffs, when the NBA season really starts.
We know the season will never be shortened for financial reasons, but Stern and the league should brace themselves for benching controversies in the future should the regular season schedule remain status quo.