A few years ago NBA league commissioner David Stern fined Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs for resting some of their superstar talent for a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat (back when LeBron James was still in South Beach). The fine was $250,000 and the league stood behind their decision to discipline a coach for not engaging in the highest level of competition for the fans. The fans pay for seats, watch the games, they deserve to have the best product on the court. Last week Pop did the exact same thing in a nationally televised game against the Houston Rockets.
At the time of the first incident I was writing for a different site, and I argued that the fine was ridiculous, and that the line here was becoming grayer than pebbles on a wool cloth draped over a steel table on a concrete pad. Suppose Pop had started his guys and only played them one minute. Does he still get the fine? Suppose that he doesn’t start them but they play their normal minutes. Does he still get the fine? Suppose he plays one star and rests the balance. You see where I am going with this. Short of releasing a grid of exactly how many minutes and starts and everything various players need to have in order to avoid a fine, the idea is too subjective. And if you’re going to release such a grid what’s the point in having coaches? The league is basically dictating how teams are to play.
Adam Silver took over from David Stern not too long ago. Silver has had to deal with the Donald Sterling incident already, and I felt like he handled it as well as he could. To date he has not levied a fine or discipline against the Spurs for the Houston game. On the one hand he almost has to in order to keep the notion of what is “acceptable” consistent. On the other hand here is a perfect opportunity to get things right.
I believe a coach’s only responsibility is winning championships. There is no responsibility to the fans, the ownership, or the league for individual games. The point of the season is to win a championship. Now, winning games certainly helps you make the playoffs. The higher your seed the higher your chance to advance. The further you advance the more likely you are to win the championship, but the items are mutually exclusive, to a degree. Many teams in many sports decide to rest players when a conclusion is forgone. Benches are routinely emptied when a game is out of reach in the NBA either way. When seeding is set superstars often have their minutes limited to make sure they are healthy and fresh for the playoffs. Popovich decided to limit his chances for a win on November 6 for whatever reason he saw fit, and he will live with the consequences one way or the other.
To me, though, the consequences can’t come from the league. If a coach isn’t winning the ownership may decide it needs a change, or the fans might force the management to rethink how they are operating, or the players might (Kobe Bryant has forced a coaching change at least once). Coaches and players are accountable to the fans, but only in the way that fans are accountable to those same people. If I bought tickets for the game I would be upset that I am not seeing Tim Duncan in the paint against Dwight Howard, but I am not owed this sight. If Duncan was having an off night and went 0-of-6 from the floor, have I seen something better than him not being out there period?
As a fan I owe a level of respect to the players and coaches who run around on the hardwood for my amusement. As a player and a coach I owe the fans a level of respect too. Popovich is confident enough in his ownership and the Spurs fan base to bench top-tier talent against a tough divisional opponent as if to say “don’t worry, we’ve got this season.” Even if San Antonio misses the playoffs by one game I doubt this is the game that will be looked at as the crux of the fall. It will be the XX games that the team loses by fewer than four points, or the XX games the team loses at home, or the XX games they lose against teams with losing records.
The last time I argued that this fine was a slippery slope. Once embarked upon, what was to stop the league from fining teams that emptied their bench, or rested players in the lead up to the playoffs? Also what was to stop other leagues from trying the same thing? Adam Silver has a chance to fix this by doing nothing. Do you have the strength to do nothing Mr. Silver?