Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:33 PM
Gregg Popovich sent his best players home, deciding they reached the end of the road before the trip was over.
San Antonio’s game notes still listed Tim Duncan and Tony Parker as probable starters, when it was already definite they’d be long gone before the Spurs tipped off in Miami.
But to what extent?
Many were still wrestling with that one Friday, along with what obligation — if any — a coach has to the paying customer.
NBA Commissioner David Stern had no doubt, apologizing to fans Thursday night for the Spurs’ "unacceptable decision" and promising "substantial sanctions" in a statement. But there were no further comments from the league, which offered no timetable for the penalties and refused to answer why Stern suddenly wanted to police something he wouldn’t touch just two years ago.
The issue of resting healthy players has been debated before, though usually at the end of the season, not a month into it. And the Spurs have been right at the center of it, Popovich using the rest strategy for an aging team that could use more time off than the NBA schedule often allows.
They even made a joke out of it last season, the box score listing "OLD" next to the 36-year-old Duncan’s name as the reason he didn’t play.
Stern wasn’t laughing Thursday.
He has a nearly $5 billion a year industry to protect and can’t like it when teams aren’t willing to put their best product on display in a marquee game televised by national TV partner TNT. Fans and viewers were excited about seeing the Spurs try to complete an unbeaten road trip against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the NBA champions, so there was an understandable letdown when they learned Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green wouldn’t be in the arena.
But there’s never a guarantee that any players are going to play, and Stern himself has previously made it clear he wasn’t going to impose rules to change that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers rested a healthy James for four straight games at the end of the 2009-10 regular season. Owners discussed the issue later that week at a meeting in New York, and Stern reported that there was "no conclusion reached, other than a number of teams thought it should be at the sole discretion of the team, the coach, the general manager, and I think it’s fair to say I agree with that, unless that discretion is abused."
Perhaps Popovich abused the discretion. But punishing him now when with no concrete policy in place might well be like parents telling their children they have no curfew, then grounding them when they stay out all night.
Popovich was both praised and ripped for the way he navigated the lockout schedule last season, twice surrendering 11-game winning streaks by playing without his Big Three. Even those who didn’t like it conceded that a coach who had won four championships with what’s long been considered the NBA’s model organization probably knew what he was doing, and more defense came Thursday night.
"Popovich has done this before and he knows what’s best for his team," former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT. "It’s his job to manage his players and do whatever he’d like. He’s thinking about the big picture."
Another former player turned TNT analyst, Steve Kerr — who played for Popovich — also defended the franchise’s actions.
"If the NBA punishes the Spurs for sitting players, it opens up a huge can of worms," he wrote on Twitter. "This is a serious legal challenge for the league."
The Spurs did break a rule by not reporting to the league, opponent and media that the quartet would be absent, as teams are required to do as soon as they know a player isn’t traveling because of injury. But even if they fulfilled those obligations, that wouldn’t have addressed the ones Stern believes they have to fans.
That San Antonio — largely unloved in its championship days but suddenly a plucky underdog cheered by those who felt Stern overstepped his bounds — nearly won the game likely did little to sway the commissioner.
The league has an expectation that fans paying hundreds of dollars should get what they paid for. On Friday, the Phoenix Suns announced a "satisfaction guaranteed night" next Thursday against Dallas, offering fans a rebate if they didn’t enjoy their experience in what the team called a first-of-its-kind promotion in the league.
But nobody buying a ticket can be assured of seeing his favorite players. The Heat occasionally sat their superstars late last season for what the organization termed a "maintenance program," and a late-season matchup against the Celtics included the following DNPs: James, Wade, Bosh and Boston’s Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.
Then there are the neutral-site preseason games the league stages in markets where fans rarely get to see the NBA live. Signs outside the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. before a Celtics-Knicks matchup in October featured pictures of Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, although neither played despite being healthy.
If Stern reaches in now, does he reach that far? Or will there be a separate set of guidelines depending on the calendar?
Popovich is a military man, the kind unlikely to blatantly blow off established rules. Stern refused to put such rules in place in the past and now may need to make entirely clear the expectations demanded of his coaches.
Popovich wouldn’t comment on Stern’s statement Thursday, and the Spurs were unavailable Friday after a long road trip.
They were resting.
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