I love a good ethical dilemma, and Gregg Popovich gave us a great one Thursday night. He benched four of his top players -- Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green -- for a national TV game against the Miami Heat.
Popovich has benched Duncan numerous times before, because while they may build a statue of Duncan one day, they don't want him to play like one in May. But Parker is 30. Green is 25. What kind of a world is this when a 25-year-old professional basketball player needs rest? Go tell the guys on the 5 a.m. shift at the nearest assembly line that Green needed to rest.
Before the opening tip, this looked like an unofficial forfeit -- giving up one game to improve your chances of winning the next.
It seemed to go against the one fundamental principle we hold for all our sports: Everybody must try.
But did it?
Or was Popovich not only within his rights, but simply right?
NBA commissioner David Stern promised "substantial sanctions" for the Spurs, and that is just the kind of phrase I associate with the commissioner of a major sport, because it sounds angry but is really just wussy. You can almost hear Stern's voice as he dictated his announcement: "THERE WILL BE SUBSTANTIAL ... (dramatic pause) SANCTIONS!"
You wouldn't use this phrase in any other aspect of your life. Try telling your toddler that if he poops in his underwear again there will be substantial sanctions. Or tell your girlfriend that if she makes out with your best friend she will face substantial sanctions. It's just not that harsh, is it? Stern basically said he is mad as hell and he'll, uh, think of something.
I don't know what that might be. How do you respond to a team benching its stars? You can't suspend them, can you? Do you make them play pickup ball on their off-days at the local Y? Do you force Duncan to say something interesting? Even Stern's power has its limits.
When I first heard the news, I completely agreed with Stern's reaction. After all, without paying customers, the NBA is just an incredibly loaded rec league. When you sell tickets for the Heat and the Spurs, fans expect to see the best that the Heat and Spurs can offer on that night.
Of course players can get injured, traded or suspended after you buy your tickets. That's the risk you take. But you expect the teams, as constructed, to give their best effort that night.
This will sound overly dramatic and cheesy and clichéd, but it is still true: Somewhere in that crowd in Miami was a kid who has never been to an NBA game before, who was looking forward to Duncan and LeBron for MONTHS, and was disappointed when he got to the arena and Duncan was not on the floor. That bothers me. If it were your kid, it would bother you, too.
And yet ... well, Popovich is paid a lot of money to achieve one goal: Win an NBA championship. He takes this one goal very seriously. He has never, for a day of his coaching life, put entertainment ahead of this one goal. He does not put personal relationships ahead of this one goal. He does not put ego ahead of this one goal.
This helps explain why he has lasted so long with the Spurs. He doesn't wear out his players, or suck up to them, or hold grudges against them because he wants to look tough. He does not act like he knows how every business in the world should be run. He just tries to win championships. Players respect that.
I believe, completely, that Popovich made this decision because of that one goal. Yes, he knew the Spurs hurt their chances of winning the game. But the reality of the NBA is that nobody tries as hard as possible in every game. Teams coast. They land in a city at 3 a.m. and play lethargically that night. They take opponents lightly. They get bored.
And coaches do not play all of their starters for 45 minutes a night, even though that would give them the best chance of winning that particular game. Right now in Oklahoma City, there are worries that Kevin Durant is playing too much. He is averaging 39.3 minutes a game. Of course he can play 39 minutes per game, but why try to squeeze every win out of the regular season when the playoffs matter more?
See, Stern can scream about SUBSTANTIAL ... SANCTIONS! But the lines are blurry.
Sometimes teams don't try as hard as they can so they can improve their chances in the lottery. They are trying to lose so they can really win. Should they face substantial sanctions?
Sometimes teams rest their starters late in the season so they are fresh for the playoffs. Stern has gotten ticked about this in the past. But those teams are also trying to win championships. Should they face substantial sanctions?
What about teams that trade their best players for draft picks? Like Popovich's Spurs, they were trying to improve their long-term prospects at a possible short-term price. Should they face substantial sanctions?
What about hockey teams that give their star goalies a night off -- which is every hockey team? Should they all face substantial sanctions?
And what about last year, when Duncan did not play for this official reason: DNP -- OLD? Popovich was doing the same thing he did Thursday night.
In the end, the Spurs made Popovich look like a genius. They took the Heat to the final seconds before losing, and you can say that the Spurs would have been better off with their stars -- especially Parker, the Spur best suited to playing Miami -- but you can't say the Spurs didn't try. Very few teams this year will play the Heat as close in Miami as the Spurs did.
And the Spurs will indeed be fresher for their home game against Memphis Saturday. In a very small way, Popovich improved his team's chances of achieving their one big goal. So I don't think the Spurs should face substantial sanctions. I do feel bad for that kid, though.