The Spurs “Big Three” is 101 years old. Tim Duncan is 36, Manu Ginobili is 35 and Tony Parker is 30. Duncan and Parker together have played in excess of 65,000 NBA regular season minutes.
Since playing the LA Clippers (losing 92-87) on 19th November, the Spurs have been on a long eastern road trip where they have beaten Boston, Indiana, Toronto, Washington and Orlando. Their trip ended last night with a game in Miami against the defending champions. Coach Gregg Popovich decided that this game presented an opportunity for him to rest his aging stars (and younger gunner Danny Green – arguably, and surprisingly, becoming the star of his UNC class) and went with a starting five of Matt Bonner, Tiago “Paul Dick” Splitter, Boris Diaw, Nando de Colo and Patrick Mills.
The Spurs have played three more games than the Heat at this stage of the season and, especially in the case of Duncan, would clearly not relish playing the uptempo Heat after a gruelling six games in eight days. It therefore made sense to effectively write off this game…a game they may have lost even with all their stars playing.
Unfortunately for them…this game was on TNT. The NBA receives something in the region of $1 billion for its broadcast rights. The networks (TNT, ABC/ESPN) expect that they will be showing all the best available players for the teams they have chosen to air. There is a reason that you do not find Washington-Charlotte games on network television. It therefore follows that when the news broke that Popovich was going to rest Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Green, the NBA was not too happy.
Brian Windhorst, among others, reported a Stern statement: “I apologize to all NBA fans.This was an unacceptable decision by Spurs & substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”
This (as in fines being issued for such matters) has happened before. In 1990, Stern fined Pat Riley for resting Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the final game of the season.
This (as in players being rested) has also happened before. Ever seen a team tank to get a better shot in the draft lottery? The main difference is that these teams have the “decency” to make up an excuse for their players absence. “Back spasms”, “patella tendinitis”, the sorts of things that probably 90% of the league suffers from are still legitimate excuses for missing games. The difference is that the teams who are tanking for draft position are not teams who feature on television.
The argument exists that Duncan, Manu and Parker are guys who fans will pay to see. Certainly the Miami Heat, who employ a dynamic pricing structure (suitably cynical for their “2nd and 3rd quarter” lower bowl fans, but perhaps unfair to the “real” fans who can’t afford anything south of the 400’s) were charging fans $70 for the upper deck which reflected that – the same seats were $25 for the Phoenix Suns. There is a question of how many fans are still paying to see Duncan, though. The guy is a legit hall-of-famer. But he’s 36. There has to be recognition among supporters that he might not be able to go every night. I saw the Spurs play in Portland a couple of years ago and Duncan hardly played. By this stage, the chances of getting a vintage Timmy performance are slim. Therefore it is more about seeing him, than actually seeing him dominate. A bit like when Jordan had his less-successful second comeback with the Wizards.
There is also the not-insignificant issue of how much autonomy teams should be allowed when it comes to managing their own players. Of course anyone who pays for a ticket is going to be disappointed if the star player they hoped to see does not play, but it should not be up to the league to decide when players should and should not be rested. How long before we end up with a WWE-type situation where athletes are forced into performing each and every night to the long term detriment of their health? The NFL wants to extend its regular season, a season where most teams experience at least two or three serious injuries, not to mention several degenerative knocks to various parts of their anatomy.
The commissioners only really care about the brand. It is the job of the coaches to care about the players, without whom, let us not forget, the brand would be worthless.
Popovich claimed that he had decided to rest his older stars back in the summer. The night off gave them only one extra days rest, though. It is odd that Pop didn’t decide that he could do without them the previous night in Orlando, easily one of the worst teams in the league at the moment. They have also only played sixteen games this season, even if they have endured two long road trips already.
The San Antonio Spurs will almost certainly be around come playoff time. They will almost certainly carefully manage the minutes of Duncan and Ginobili between now and then, regardless of what Stern decides to impose upon them. They will also, possibly, even contend for the 2013 NBA title. So surely it is up to them how they go about getting to the playoffs? Simply fining the Spurs for being honest (remember Duncan’s DNP – Old from last season?) is petty.
The Spurs were actually leading the Heat well into the second quarter, before trailing 47-44 at the half and ultimately only losing 105-100 on a Ray Allen three with 25 second left and a couple of free throws after Gary Neal (who had obviously decided that he would be the big shot guy for the game) missed a tying three. So perhaps the only real loser was Stern.