By Ben Golliver
Hours after David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 after coach Gregg Popovich rested four of his players during a Thursday night game against the Heat, television commentator Jeff Van Gundy came out strong against the commissioner during ESPN's broadcast of a Friday game between the Nuggets and Lakers.
"To me, fine yourself too, $250,000, because you're just as culpable for what happened in the league office as Gregg Popovich is," Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy, the former coach of the Knicks and Rockets, defended Popovich's decision to rest Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green against the defending champions on the final game of a six-game road trip for a number of reason. At the top of the list: the fact that Popovich has used this strategy previously in recent years without drawing a fine.
"The commissioner to me, I understand his disappointment and frustration," Van Gundy said. "I don't understand him fining a team. This has been happening forever under his watch, healthy players sitting out games. I don't understand the outrage today about that thing. Last year, Gregg Popovich sent all three guys home for two games at the end of the year. People said, 'This one was on TV.' Well, every regular season game is either important or it's not. I just don't understand opening up this can of worms."
San Antonio, currently 13-4 on the season, was playing its fourth in five nights and the second half of a back-to-back. Popovich called his decision to sit his players "pretty logical" given those circumstances and the fact that the Spurs face the Grizzlies, a division rival, on Saturday. The Heat, meanwhile, had four consecutive days of rest prior to their game against the Spurs. Miami eventually won Thursday's game 105-100, but San Antonio held a lead until the final minute even without their stars.
"The schedule that was put out is as much to blame as anything," Van Gundy said. "You don't have to play a national TV game on a back-to-back and you certainly don't have to do it on four games in five nights. ... It's ridiculous to ask those guys to play four games in five nights on a national televised game when the other team is sitting there rested."
As you would expect, Van Gundy also defended Popovich's right to manage his own team without Stern or the league office looking over his shoulder.
"The league is not right," he said. "I don't think Gregg Popovich is wrong. ... He's trying to [rest his guys together] in one game so his team plays together as much as possible, to give himself the best chance of winning. A big part of any coach's job is to pace your team correctly. That means how much you play them, how many minutes, how long you practice. That's what his job is. To say he doesn't have the right to do that [is wrong]."
NBA coaches, of course, don't always play their best players every game for a variety of reasons. Young players, or players with larger contracts, are given extra opportunities depending on the circumstances. Veteran players are given rest throughout the season. Stars sit at the end of the season once playoff seeding have been locked in. Struggling teams have been accused of purposefully playing bad lineups to improve their draft lottery positioning. To Van Gundy, these realities must be considered when assessing the fining of Popovich.
"Where's the outrage previously to this? Why now? Why now? How about teams tanking whole seasons, tanking down the stretch? Why aren't we saying anything about that? If you want to start saying it's about the credibility of the game then there's credibility [issues with tanking] there too." Van Gundy, 50, holds a career record of 430-318 (.575) in 11 seasons. Popovich's Spurs defeated Van Gundy's Knicks to win the 1999 NBA Finals, Popovich's first title.