NBA commissioner David Stern isn't a happy camper. He was looking forward to seeing the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the best record in the Western Conference, take on the Miami Heat, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, during the first half of a TNT doubleheader on Thursday night.
Then, like those legions of basketball fans he pretends to serve, Stern caught wind of some troubling news: Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had sent home four of his best players—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green—as his team arrived in South Florida for the final leg of a six-game, nine-day road trip.
I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.
There's precedent for such a response from the NBA. As Andrew Ungvari of Lakers Nation noted, the league fined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1985, when Pat Riley sat Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and again in 1990, when Magic, James Worthy and Mychal Thompson missed the final game of the 1989-90 regular season.
Of course, the league hasn't punished the Spurs in the past for sitting their stars. Pop fiddled with his roster aplenty during the compressed schedule last season, even listing Duncan as "DNP-Old" on one occasion.
Nor did Stern's office come down on the Lakers when they allowed Kobe Bryant to pass up a shot at the scoring title in the 2011-12 season finale, or when the Heat and the Boston Celtics intentionally sidelined most of their stars two days prior.
And yet when the Heat opted not to sit Dwyane Wade with a foot injury in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in mid-November—and saw him reaggravate said injury as a result—there were no kudos from the league office.
Not that any should've been anticipated. After all, he gets paid to play.
The point being, there are no official league rules that dictate when, where and under what circumstances a team may or may not sit its players. It's reasonable to assume that the league wants its best and brightest on hand for nationally televised showcases, though such expectations aren't explicitly codified.
Rather, those decisions are (typically) left to the discretion of the coach in question, whose job it is to look after the best interests of his team as a whole. Which is to say, Pop's task is to win titles, while that of the NBA is to put forth a quality product that appeals to the league's fans and sponsors...but mostly to its sponsors.
The league will hide behind the interest of the fans, suggesting it's unfair to those at home and those who paid for entry into AmericanAirlines Arena for the Spurs to bring out their B Team. This argument, in itself, carries some weight; as Tony Kornheiser noted on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption on Thursday, attendees to a Broadway show are usually offered a refund when the understudies unexpectedly take over for the featured cast on a given night. The same should go for the folks in Miami, though that seems unlikely.
Even so, it's disingenuous for Stern and the NBA to pretend that they're at all interested in the satisfaction of the fans beyond them tuning in (and driving up the value of advertising time). Was the league "concerned" about the fans during last year's lockout? What about when it offered a whopping $10 discount to League Pass subscribers for the sloppy, 66-game season thereafter?
And why doesn't the league take action against teams that sit their best players in an effort to "tank" the season and improve their positioning in the NBA draft? Anyone who watched the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards (among others) down the stretch last season could tell you that those teams weren't playing to win the game and weren't at all dissuaded by the league's lottery system.
If Stern doesn't want coaches sitting presumably healthy stars (for nationally televised games and otherwise), he should do what some observers have suggested he do for years—lighten the load on the league's labor. The return to a regular, 82-game slate has eliminated the back-to-back-to-backs that dotted the calendar in 2011-12.
But it's still left teams to tangle with back-to-backs, four games in five nights and long, draining road trips. All of these scheduling snafus inevitably put the long-term health of the players—and, in turn, their teams' prospects of success—at risk. Minutes pile up, fatigue sets in and the medical impact of every step (and misstep) is amplified.
And if such squads are fortunate enough to avoid the injury bug, there's still the specter of a sloppy, unsatisfactory performance with which to contend. A tired team might not lose, but it surely won't play the sort of crisp basketball that most fans crave.
As such, if the NBA paid any mind to maximizing fan enjoyment, it might consider, you know, having teams play fewer games, limiting long road trips and cutting down on back-to-backs. That way, wary coaches wouldn't have to worry so much about players—be they stars, role players or benchwarmers—tiring out and getting hurt. Nor would the league likely lose its most marketable assets to injury as frequently as it does.
The problem is, fewer games mean fewer dollars for the league and its teams, as well as for the players. Hence, don't expect the NBA to give the players more nights off, not unless both sides are prepared for some seriously testy negotiating sessions when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, perhaps as soon as 2017.
To clarify a/b dialogue between NBA/teams-at minimum discuss high profile games like this. Rest v. Orlando last night, Wiz 2 nights before— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 30, 2012
Stern's accomplished plenty over the years with his iron fist. But perhaps it's not too late for an old dog to learn new tricks, to realize that communication is the key to any successful relationship.
Even when said dog is less than 15 months away from retirement.
Not that Pop cares. It's not his job to make the commish happy, as if he'd know what happy is.
Ironically enough, the league's fans are probably happy with the results anyway. The Spurs came within minutes of upending the defending champions in a 105-100 defeat.
Though, frankly, that might've made Stern an even Grumpier Gus.