By Ben Golliver
Gregg Popovich may not be the friendliest coach, but he's broken no NBA rules by sending his players home early. (Joshua C. Cruey/ABACAUSA.com)
The only criticism of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that sticks whenever he decides to strategically rest his stars is that he's a grumpy Grinch. The rest of the arguments that inevitably arise when he gives Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker a night off in the middle of the season, even if they aren't injured or even hurting, just don't hold water.
We're here again because Popovich elected not to play his Big Three and starting shooting guard Danny Green during Thursday night's nationally televised game against the Heat in Miami. Arguably the game of the week, Spurs-Heat was set to pit the team with the West's second-best record against the East's top team. The 2012 NBA champions against the 2012 Western Conference finalists. Stars upon stars upon stars. Instead, Popovich opted to punt.
"We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, rather than a popular decision," Popovich told reporters before the game, according to the San Antonio Express-News. "It's pretty logical."
Sitting four key players, when two others, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson, are already out because of injury, rubs some the wrong way. It really shouldn't. Let's dissect some of the most popular lines of anti-Popovich reasoning one-by-one.
Gregg Popovich is cheating and/or breaking the rules!
Popovich is violating no NBA rules -- at least none that are clearly stated -- by purposefully not playing uninjured players. Who plays and who doesn't has traditionally been a coach's decision and he is making it.
"Strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said in April, according to USA Today Sports, when the issue became a hot-button topic during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Unfortunately, NBA commissioner David Stern muddied the water on Thursday, issuing a statement condemning Popovich that aired on the TNT broadcast.
"I apologize to all NBA fans," Stern said. "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
It's unclear where Stern is coming from on this one. The only precedents for punishing organizations for not playing healthy players date to 1985 and 1990 and concern end-of-season resting. In a New York Times article announcing the fine in 1990, no specific rule was cited to explain the fines and Stern was not quoted.
If Stern suddenly wants to invoke a "for the good of the game" approach, he's doing it without recent precedent and opening up all sorts of slippery slopes. Teams around the league regularly rest players in advance of the postseason, especially after seeding has been locked up, and lottery-bound teams have been known to shut down players and/or give outsized minutes to younger players to develop them. The league office has not touched either issue. Those are coaching decisions left to the coaches.
Not only is Popovich apparently acting within the rules, but the league's competition committee has met on numerous occasions since he began implementing this strategy and has yet to outlaw or restrict it. Popovich has not been punished previously, either. What's "unacceptable" about this particular situation? If anything, Popovich handled his substitutions acting with the league's tacit approval based on its response to recent history.
Gregg Popovich is a coward!
OK, say that one to his face. Proving someone else's courage isn't the easiest task but even the briefest reading of his biography would suggest Popovich is the kind of guy who intelligently picks his battles, rather than the type to run from a fight. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. He served on active duty in the Air Force. He coached at the Air Force Academy. He is an Air Force Academy Distinguished Graduate. He's gotten the most out of virtually everyone he's coached, from David Robinson to Stephen Jackson. He's won four NBA titles, defeating hard-scrabble teams like the Pistons and talent-laden teams like the Lakers along the way. He's compiled a career record of 860-402 (.681) and has won more than 60 percent of his regular-season games in 15 straight seasons. He's beaten everyone there is to beat.
Popovich simply has nothing to prove by beating the Heat in Miami in November. Big-picture, the game is meaningless to him. While he said Thursday that playing the Heat didn't factor into his decision, the fact that Miami entered the game 64-16 (.800) at home during the LeBron James can't be ignored. If you're going to rest your key guys, you want to rest them in games you're already likely to lose or games you're likely to be competitive even without them. This game clearly fits the former category, especially when you consider the recent schedules for both teams: Miami hasn't played since Saturday while San Antonio is playing its sixth straight road game, fourth game in five nights, and the second game of a back-to-back. The Spurs got their business done early on the trip, too, winning the first five games against the Celtics, Pacers, Raptors, Wizards and Magic. If ever there was a toss-away game, this is it.
Gregg Popovich is screwing the fans!
This is, by far, the most popular criticism of Popovich. "Think of the fan attending his first game," the story goes, "or the family who saved up hundreds of dollars to attend its only game of the year."
Even people who don't find joy in appearing heartless, like Popovich, can reasonably conclude that it's impossible for an NBA coach to act in what he deems is his team's best interests to make everyone happy all the time. Let's start with Spurs fans, to whom he likely feels the biggest obligation. Has any reasonable Spurs fan ever complained about Popovich? What more exactly could they want from a coach who has presided over a decade and a half of consistent excellence? If trading one, or even five, games of rest a year is a part of the price for ensuring playoff run after playoff run, and the continuation of the careers of Duncan and Ginobili, Spurs fans will surely agree to that price.
As for the rest of the basketball fan community, Popovich can strongly argue that he's doing it more long-term good than harm through his strategy. He owes fans the best possible team in the most possible games that he can muster. A little preventative management can help reduce problems down the road and he's making those calculations while consulting with the players, his training staff and management. He's making his calls from a position of knowledge and experience not available to outsiders and he's doing so knowing that some will be disappointed.
"Hopefully, he can see things from my perspective, too," Popovich said of any fan missing out on seeing his players, according to the Express-News.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all played for the Heat, by the way, so fans in Miami still enjoyed a championship-caliber consolation prize. The Spurs' reserves aren't exactly slouches either. They've managed to be competitive in games without their stars and they actually led Thursday night until the final minute, when the Heat rallied for a 105-100 victory. Fans that paid for a game got one.
Gregg Popovich owes it to the league and/or the league's sponsors!
This is related to the last one and is another case of looking at the world through a microscope rather than a telescope. Small-picture, ratings go down on Thursday and advertisers are a bit sour. Big-picture, the Spurs position their veteran club for another eight-month season, one that comes after a summer in which six players -- Parker, Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Nando de Colo -- all played for their home countries during the London Olympics. San Antonio prepares, as best it can, for prime time of the NBA calendar: the playoffs, when ratings and advertising dollars are significantly bigger.
Take the far opposite approach as a counterexample. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau left Derrick Rose on the court during Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Sixers last season. Rose blows out his knee in garbage time. Thibodeau was thinking small-picture: Ensure the victory. The league and its partners could have no complaints on that particular day. But what about the next eight months? You think, with the benefit of hindsight, that the NBA, Adidas and the league's television partners would have preferred that Thibodeau pull Rose earlier? You think they would trade Rose's missing the entire 2012 playoffs, after dealing with a number of injuries earlier last season, if it meant that he was available for the entire 2012-13 season, rather than sitting out a huge portion of it? Is maximizing one night, no matter what night it is, really smarter than a panoramic view that aims to please as many people as often as possible?
Rose, of course, is the extreme example. Think about how many teams, in addition to the Bulls, have already had their seasons affected by injuries: Minnesota (Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love), Indiana (Danny Granger), the Los Angeles Lakers (Steve Nash), Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki), New Orleans (Anthony Davis), Washington (John Wall), Cleveland (Kyrie Irving) and Philadelphia (Andrew Bynum), to name a few. That's nearly a third of the league whose appeal to its partners has been limited by injuries. Why, again, would we criticize someone for trying a proactive approach to avoid a similar fate, especially with players who have injury histories and thousands of games played on their résumés?
Gregg Popovich is a grumpy Grinch who ruined my night!
On this count, Popovich can't be defended. Just a few weeks ago, he went off on TNT broadcaster David Aldridge for using the word "happy" during an in-game interview.
"Happy? Happy's not a word we think about during a game," Popovich said, as transcribed by SBNation.com. "Think of something different. I don't know how to judge happy. We're in the middle of a contest. Nobody's happy."
He's ornery, sure. But he's not stupid. He's not violating the rules, at least not according to the NBA's No. 2 man. He's not letting anyone down, at least not when you really think about it. He's not doing a disservice to his organization or his league. Does his decision make for a massive letdown on what should have been must-see TV? Unquestionably. He doesn't coach for anyone besides his owner, though, and his owner is smart enough to trust the judgment of a man who has won everything there is to win in this league.