Let's move straight to your questions:
In responding to Gregg Popovich's repeated resting (and sending home) of star players during the regular season, why can't the league impose a simple rule change? Here's my proposal:
Do not pay players their game checks unless they are suited up ready to play on the bench if healthy, or have a documented injury that causes them to miss at least three consecutive games (or some other appropriate number of games). Only injured players will be excused from attending games and still receive their game checks. Popovich may then choose to not play a star, but the player will still be in the arena ready to play (and warm up, sign autographs and at least be seen by fans) or else he will not be paid. I doubt Tony Parker would give up $150,000 to go home and rest in this situation. Is this solution viable?
I don't believe we can control a coach's decision to not play a player. However, sending players home to rest sets a bad precedent and hurts the image of the game.-- David Folsom, Salt Lake City, Utah
The owners would love to enlist your idea, David. If they had their way, they would compel players to surrender their contract guarantees in a variety of ways. But the players proved once again during the lockout last year that they aren't going to surrender their guaranteed money.
The kind of rule you're suggesting would have to be bargained collectively with the players, who would never go for it. They would not allow Popovich or anyone else to have any say over whether they would lose $150,000 or any other amount of guaranteed salary.
The Spurs' decision to send home their top four available players -- Tim Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green -- before a nationally televised game last week at Miami shows how the relationship between players and management has evolved over the years. In the days when players were making less than $100,000 in salary, teams were more inclined to ride them hard until they broke down. Now you see players being viewed as investments and long-term assets, to be protected by the franchises that pay them eight-figure salaries. Management would rather rest a valuable player than expose him to injury.
[Related: Cuban backs Stern | Rivers supports Pop | Jeff Van Gundy rips Stern| More reaction]
One reason why the NBA and Major League Baseball treat their best players with so much caution (as in the case of the Nationals shutting down Stephen Strasburg a month before the playoffs) is because the players' contracts are guaranteed. NFL players aren't treated with as much sensitivity because the culture of football is different from other sports, but also because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. If a player breaks down in football, then the team can escape its financial obligation -- not so in baseball or basketball.
Popovich's treatment of his players over the years is the standard for all NBA teams. The Spurs are on their way to a 16th straight season of 50 victories*. They've extended their run of contention around Duncan far longer than anyone imagined possible in this era of free agency, and at the heart of their success is the trust between Popovich and his players. They believe in each other, and Popovich affirms that belief by emphasizing their welfare and looking out for them, as he did when he sent them home before the Miami game. His methods work, which is why so many rival franchises hire Popovich's employees in hopes of recreating the success he's had in San Antonio.
(*During the lockout-shortened 1999 season they won 74 percent of their games, which would equate to 61 victories on a normal schedule.)
At the same time, I wonder if in the future the NBA will seek rules that define when players can be sent home, tying the departures to a doctor's orders. Despite his best intentions, Popovich did real harm to the NBA by using a nationally televised game between two of the best teams to demonstrate that the regular season isn't as important as the TV networks and the NBA itself make it out to be. Everyone knows that the regular season is too long, and many fans who are critical of pro basketball already have the idea that players don't much care whether they lose a game here or there as long as they can cash their guaranteed paycheck. This is a point of view that the NBA is always trying to disprove, and for many sports fans it was affirmed by Popovich.
There is no better coach or franchise leader in the NBA than Popovich. He is the best there is. All of his NBA rivals wish they could run their franchises as efficiently as he runs his. His team wins because he and his players are committed to a cause larger than themselves. In the same sense, the Spurs' organization is also contributing to the larger cause of its league. This should be obvious enough: The reason Popovich earns a reported $6 million salary is because his Spurs and other teams throughout the NBA sell tickets and provide entertainment for TV. It is not right for him to cash his large paycheck and then not be held accountable to the demands of the showcase events that fund his salary.
Teams throughout the NBA use dynamic ticketing plans by which they charge fans higher prices for an individual ticket to the best games. How would the Spurs like it if they charged extra money for their fans to attend the Miami game March 31 -- only to have the Heat send home LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen? If this became common practice in the NBA, then it would undermine TV contracts and ticketing plans for all teams, including the Spurs.
The NBA may be able to come up with a rule that prevents Popovich from sending his players home in the future. But I don't see how he could be forced to play his players in certain games, and I can't imagine why the NBA would want to force him to do so. Popovich's method of pacing his players has been a boon to the NBA by extending the careers of his stars and setting the highest standards of excellence.
The only mistake by Popovich was to make the entire league look bad by upstaging a showcase TV event in the worst kind of way. It wasn't his intention, but nonetheless he made fans and TV networks feel like fools for investing their money in the NBA's regular season. Imagine how NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would have reacted to a similar incident in his league -- he would have punished any of his teams at least as hard as Stern hit the Spurs.
Does this fine represent a turning point for David Stern? No one understands the value of star players better than Stern, but in fining the Spurs, he's essentially saying that the health and well-being of the Spurs' stars are less important than the league's national TV deal. What's a greater disservice to the NBA: No Duncan in November or no healthy stars come playoff time?-- Andy, Chicago
I don't think Stern was undermining the health and well-being of the Spurs' stars, Andy. Let's put it this way: If Popovich had sat his four players on the bench in uniform instead of sending them home before the game, then I don't see how Stern could have fined the Spurs $250,000. It would be idiotic to fine a coach for not putting certain players into a specific game under these circumstances. I would hope we'll never see that happen.
This incident had everything to do with the ever-growing tension between the sport and the business of entertainment. It was one of those mistakes made by all kinds of big organizations like the NBA when one franchise doesn't recognize its impact on the rest of the company. In this case, it's up to San Antonio owner Peter Holt to see the big picture, and to find common ground between the needs of the Spurs and the needs of the NBA. Popovich's job is to do what is best for his franchise; it's Holt's responsibility to make sure that his team does not hurt the larger business goals of the league. That's why the $250,000 fine was levied not on Popovich but on the Spurs -- and paid by Holt.
Enjoyed your James Harden/OKC article, but I wonder why if the Thunder were so committed to bringing back Harden they couldn't have gone from 95 percent to 100 percent -- no real difference in cost, especially while asking Harden to stay a backup and reduce his chances of being All-NBA. They probably lost their shot at the title this year, and having watched a lot of Kevin Martin games, he can't be counted on in the clutch and is very injury-prone.-- Brian, Davis, Calif.
Thanks, Brian. The Thunder believed they were offering him as much as they could afford. The precedent was established by Russell Westbrook in his contract negotiations last January. Westbrook accepted less money than Kevin Durant in order to re-sign with Oklahoma City. After persuading Westbrook to take less than the maximum salary he could have demanded, the Thunder could not have turned around and given the max to Harden. It would have been a bad-faith gesture to Westbrook, and it could have disrupted the chemistry of the entire organization.
Harden was clearly the third star in OKC. He rarely took the last shot in the final seconds -- those shots went to Durant or Westbrook.
It comes down to this with Harden: The Thunder needed to find out whether he was committed to their group mission. If they were going to win a championship with him, then he needed to be satisfied with his role as the third star to complement Durant and Westbrook. If he wasn't going to be satisfied with that complementary role, if he was going to need more shots and a bigger role in the clutch, then the team was never going to hold together and succeed anyway.
All of this was laid out in detail during the negotiations that were held separately with Westbrook and Harden. Westbrook chose to take less money in order to play with Durant; Harden declined to accept less money in order to remain with them. I'll say it again: I'm not criticizing Harden, at age 23, for attempting to find out how big of a star he can become. At the same time, I don't see how OKC can be blamed for the choice Harden made. James, Wade and Bosh took less money in order to win a championship in Miami, but they were older players who had already fulfilled themselves individually; it's obvious that Harden wanted to find out who he was as a player. And there is nothing wrong with that.
It seems like NBA teams are using the D-League more actively this year than in years past. Are teams finally realizing the value of having a farm system where their young guys can get a little more seasoning?-- Jeff Jordan, Tampa, Fla.
Teams are recognizing the value of the D-League, Jeff. Eleven NBA franchises now are affiliated with a D-League team of their own, which means they can send players up and down in the way that baseball franchises manage their minor-league affiliates. Twenty percent of NBA rosters boast D-League experience. Anyone who is fatigued by the financial hypocrisy of college basketball should be hoping for the day when the D-League (or some other professional enterprise) can emerge as a developmental alternative for teenage stars who have no interest in pretending to attend college for a season or two on their way to the NBA.
Is there anyone in the East who can really challenge the Heat or should we start printing the Eastern Conference champion T-shirts tomorrow?-- Sal, Baltimore
Based on what we've seen in the opening month, Sal, the best hope for everyone else in the East is that something will go wrong for Miami. Not one of the Heat's rivals is behaving like a realistic challenger. The Knicks don't have Amar'e Stoudemire, the Pacers don't have Danny Granger, the Bulls don't have Derrick Rose, the 76ers don't have Andrew Bynum, the Hawks unloaded Joe Johnson, the Nets' Deron Williams is facing the possibility of surgery for bone spurs after this season and the Celtics don't yet know who they are. A challenger will emerge over the course of the long season, but in the meantime Miami has access to a full rotation led by the NBA's best player at his peak age. As long as the Heat stay healthy, I don't see anyone capable of beating them.
Outside of Damian Lillard (and Anthony Davis before he got hurt), which rookie has impressed you most?-- Michael Rice, Oklahoma
It's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Bobcats have already won more games than they did all of last season and he is making plays of all kinds. Kidd-Gilchrist's jump shot still needs to develop, but that hasn't lessened his impact. He has been instantly aggressive at both ends while putting up numbers without needing plays run for him. He is imposing himself upon the game as an unfinished player, and as his skills improve, his impact will continue to grow.