Punish Pop? David Stern out of line
Commissioner's reaction reveals a double standard.
November 29, 2012
By John Hollinger
If David Stern is trying to create enthusiasm for the start of the Adam Silver Era, he's off to a good start.
Stern's bizarre decision to announce the San Antonio Spurs would face as-yet-unnamed "substantial sanctions" -- calling it "unacceptable" without ever specifying why -- for sitting out four starters against Miami on Thursday night, bore all the classic tenets of bad management: Reactive, inconsistent, overbearing, and moving us no closer to a solution to the underlying issue.
Let's walk through it. Understandably, ticket-holders in Miami were upset they wouldn't get to see San Antonio's three All-Stars (although Southwest ticket holders in Orlando apparently were thrilled). Also understandably, so was TNT -- one of the league's national television rights holders who thought it would have a marquee game to televise.
While we ended up with a surprisingly good game -- a 105-100 Miami win decided in the final half-minute -- it's likely that some viewers turned off their sets when they saw the assorted de Colos and Josephs on the floor for San Antonio. Or that's the argument, anyway, although it breaks down when one considers the Spurs have pretty much been a form of TV-viewer repellent for several years now. (Seriously, I've probably written a hundred columns on the Spurs over the past decade, and this may be the first one that more than eight non-relatives outside the state of Texas will read.)
Nonetheless, let's walk through the four main problems I have with Stern's sudden decree:
Reactive. Popovich told our Brian Windhorst that he'd basically decided as soon as the schedule came out that he'd be resting his players for this game. Certainly if the league had given him some warning not to do it -- Popovich has done this several times before, remember -- he would have thought twice about enacting his plan.
More important, anyone with any familiarity with the Spurs could see this coming from a mile away. I wrote about it in my column Thursday morning, and it's not as if I'd had a sudden burst of clairvoyance; San Antonio Express-News beat writer Jeff McDonald had been warning fans for several days that the Spurs would likely tank this game.
Stern's reaction was to be Captain Renault in "Casablanca," shocked to learn that teams sometimes sit out healthy players in his league. Clearly he felt some blowback (probably from the networks more than fans) about what had happened, and immediately went into knee-jerk mode. But this was not some sudden, unexpected thunderbolt like the fight at the Palace. He should have been prepared for it.
Inconsistent. This is not the first time Popovich has done this; not even close. He never has been sanctioned, or warned, or even glanced at sideways. Last season he sat all his starters in a game at Portland just before the All-Star break, for instance, and unlike Thursday night that contest wasn't close at all: The Blazers won by 40. (A night remembered fondly out there as "the last time we thought the Blazers were good.") He also has done this a couple of other times over the past few years, nearly always at the end of a long road trip with a back-to-back set, like Thursday night's game at Miami.
Moreover, Popovich isn't the only one. You want a bad national TV game as a result of sitting stars? How about last year's Miami-Boston game on April 24, in which six of the seven All-Stars from the two different teams sat out because of assorted maladies, both real and imagined, and the result was a 78-66 abomination that may be the single-worst game I have ever seen in person. (Did I mention I flew up to cover this putrescence?) I'm still waiting to hear about the sanctions facing those two teams.
Or, more important, there's the little matter that the league is completely unwatchable in March and April because of all the rampant tanking taking place by teams out of the playoff chase, combined with playoff teams resting key players as well. Here's what I wrote after being subjected to that Heat-Celtics stinker last April, and my feelings haven't changed: Fixing the abominable quality of the last two months of the season is one of the bigger problems facing the league. The league has shown no real momentum toward addressing it.
But Popovich sitting out his starters for one game in November, so he can have a better team by the end of the season and win more games (which he usually does)? That's the problem that requires action?
Overbearing: So now we're going to have "substantial sanctions" for this event, that the Spurs had no idea was going to provoke a response from the league despite the ample and obvious warning signals they'd given that this would happen?
Great. So next time San Antonio wants to do this, it will be five percent harder. The Spurs will have to make up fake injuries, perhaps (how we missed you, "tendonitis," ever since the injured list went away), and probably have them chill on Miami Beach on game night instead of flying them home early from Orlando (that'll show 'em!). He might even have to choose a different game to tank -- I don't think we would have had such a commotion if Popovich had sent out the 'B' team against the Magic a night earlier, for instance.
Better yet, maybe if the commissioner is so concerned about fans being able to see the stars compete, he can tell us what sanctions he gave himself last Nov. 29, when nobody could see any games because the players were locked out.
Stern has just taken a running start down a mighty steep and slippery slope by essentially telling a team how to manage personnel. That's particularly true when it's a team trying to actually win and not that more common, depressing scenario of draft-inspired tanking. What if he orders Pop to play his guys and then Duncan gets hurt? Or at a lesser level, what if the Spurs lost a more important game upcoming against Memphis because they were tuckered out from this one and the long trip? These are the decisions coaches are making every day in this league, and they know their teams far better than Stern.
Not addressing the underlying problem. If the 82-game schedule is too taxing for virtually any player over the age of 25, and if back-to-backs at the end of long trips are particularly problematic, maybe the solution is not to throw the book at teams who try to manage for the long haul and have everybody in peak condition in June. (Sadly, there are a great many teams who don't fall under this banner.)
Maybe, just maybe, the problem is trying to schedule prominent national TV games with one of the teams on a back-to-back at the end of a long trip. Here's an idea: If you really want to make sure the TNT and ABC games are marquee events, then make sure both teams have a day off heading into it.
Instead, Stern's response essentially is to chastise the Spurs for being smarter than everybody else and figuring out that if you only contest, say, 79 of the 82 games on the schedule, you can come out of it in a lot better shape at the end.
I'll insert the caveat that there may be variables we don't know. Perhaps warnings were sent, wags of the finger given, and all of it happened behind the scenes. I still don't agree with it, for all the reasons given above, but it would seem maybe five percent more sensible than it does now.
Nonetheless, the initial takeaway from this affair is that this was a fit of Selig-ian lunacy not befitting of the best commissioner in sports history. One hopes that the league will sit down and take a more reasoned approach before deciding its "substantial" sanctions ... unless, that is, one of those sanctions involves Popovich taking extra questions in his between-quarter TV interviews. In that case, everybody wins.