“I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.” – David Stern
That was the NBA commissioner’s reaction to Gregg Popovich sending star players Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Paker and key role player David Green back to San Antonio to rest rather than have them play against the Miami Heat on Thursday night.
The game itself turned out to be surprisingly exciting – despite San Antonio’s absence of star power. The Heat won a hard fought 105-100 game and were actually trailing until a Ray Allen three-pointer with 22.6 seconds to play.
But entertaining or not, the question here is whether Stern should come down hard on the Spurs for not playing their stars or if Popovich should be allowed to rest his top players when he deems it necessary.
On the one side, this was a nationally televised game, marketed as a matchup between two of the league’s top teams. The commissioner clearly wants to ensure that the NBA puts its best foot forward on national TV and feels that teams have a responsibility to the fans to showcase their star players.
There is also some precedent for punishing teams that sit out their stars during the regular season even if it hasn’t happened recently.
Stern fined the Lakers $25,000 during the 1990 season after coach Pat Riley rested Magic Johnson and James Worthy in Los Angeles’s regular season finale against Portland. The Lakers were also hit with a fine in 1985 by then-vice president for NBA operations Rod Thorn when Riley sat Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the team’s regular season finale against the then Kansas City Kings.
On the other hand, Thursday’s game against Miami was the final game of a six-game road trip for the Spurs and their fourth game in five nights. Popovich has one of the oldest teams in the NBA and wants to make sure his best players are healthy come playoff time. He decided his aging stars and Green – who leads the team in minutes played – needed the night off.
It’s not the first time Popovich has made a move like this over the last few seasons either. Last season alone, he held out Duncan, Ginobili and Parker from three games together, including a game at Portland just before the All-Star break where the Spurs blown out by 40 points.
He also rested Duncan in a game last season against the 76ers and had a little fun with the reasoning, listing him as “Did not dress – old.”
And never in any previous instance of sitting his stars had Popovich even been warned, let alone sanctioned for it.
In fact after leaving Duncan, Ginobili and Parker at home for a road game against Utah late last season, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver specifically said the Spurs would not be disciplined.
“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” Silver told NBA.com in April. “And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second guess.”
However, that did come at the end of last season’s lockout-shortened schedule which the league considered to be a special circumstance.