Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili each played fewer than 24. Seven Spurs played between 21 and 27 minutes. Pop didn’t send anyone home, but he did not overwork them, either. It was like he was sticking both thumbs in his ears and flapping his hands at Stern.
When I read accounts of the game, it turned out the Knicks built a big lead and Popovich basically surrendered. But I wonder if he had doubts about that? Are there now certain times he can rest players and times he can’t?
Although those of us who neither have to assess nor pay a fine find humor in some of the actions and inconsistencies of the Stern-Popovich dance, there are serious ramifications. Anyone who has had even one minute of conversation with Popovich knows that any action he takes with his team is designed to benefit his players and win a championship. He’s had four titles since 1999. That is easily the most among active coaches.
The Spurs haven’t won a title since 2007 and you can be sure Pop and GM R.C. Buford are well aware their superstars are getting older.
The Tim Duncan window is getting smaller and smaller and for him to be at his best during the playoffs, Pop has to use him intelligently during the regular season.
He’s done that in the past. Last year, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili sat the last two games of the regular season. The Spurs won both.
They had sat out an earlier game in Portland, even though the Spurs had an 11-game winning streak. San Antonio lost by 40 that night. Yet no fine from the league.
All of those came after a 2010 Board of Governors meeting, where Stern said the issue of resting players was covered.
If Stern felt the NBA’s image was harmed, he said he would exercise his right as commissioner to levy a fine. Yet he passed on three games and did not fine the Spurs until the TNT game. (And, yes, if you think the large TV contract factored into the fine, you’re not alone.)
Oddly, the lineup the Spurs used in that game against Miami was much more competitive than the starters who played against the Knicks. With the four players flying back to San Antonio, the Spurs took the world champions to the final minute of the game before losing 105-100.
Despite the theatrical show of power, Stern and the league have not followed up with specific guidelines on resting players. For a league that publicly advocates transparency, that is a little strange.
Pop is defiantly loyal to his players when discussing the situation and says he will continue making choices that best serve the Spurs’ goal of winning a title.
“I don’t know what the guidelines are,” he told reporters last week before a game in Dallas. “Do you? I don’t know how you plan. I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing for 16-17 years, whatever it is. I’m mostly concerned with the health and safety of my players, especially the ones who are a little bit older. And when they need rest, I’m going to give it to them.”
It does appear that Popovich’s opinion on the best way of winning a championship are at odds with the league’s position on which players should play in national TV games. Ideally, there should be a way for both parties to work around the difficulty. But if not, Pop will be Pop and do what he thinks is best for his team.
And if that earns him a detention from the headmaster, so be it.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.