There’s been a lot of talk lately about the showdown between San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and NBA head honcho David Stern. For those of you who haven’t been able to tear yourselves away from the cooling embers of the Petraeus scandal, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes: Commissioner Stern levied a $250k fine against the Spurs for sending home 4 of its starters before a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. The mainstream media has turned it into a two gunslingers staring each other down, daring the other to blink. But is that really the case? Absolutely not. Despite pure tonnage of verbiage wasted on this topic I think there are two things that have been missed. The first is in regards to the entertainment value of basketball, and the second is about the intentions of Popovich.
While there’s no question that NBA fans love to watch the stars do battle on the hardwood (or whatever space age substance basketball courts are carved from these days) it’s certainly questionable, as many pundits have pointed out, that anyone in Miami showed up that fateful Thursday evening to see the aging trio of Duncan, Ginobli and Parker take the floor (and certainly if there’s a Danny Green fan club in Miami, then it’s a very lonely one). Stern levied his fine and issued an apology to NBA fans as though Popovich’s decision was a crime against their entertainment. If Stern is truly concerned how the fan experience is affected by Popovich’s decision, he’s evaluating through a single, highly myopic lens: the Marquee.
For Stern, the fan experience is about name recognition, not about the quality of play on the court. It’s not about the subtle chess match of an otherwise meaningless November game in an overlong season in a over-crowded league; the fourth game in five nights for San Antonio’s aging core facing a much more important intra-conference game two days later in Memphis. Stern has, for the better of the league, but to the detriment of its players, adopted a showtime mentality wherein the names on the side of the building (or listed on Stub Hub) matter far more than the quality of play they produce. Stern’s actions prove that he is a svengali obsessed with spectacle rather than an even-handed steward focused on truly improving the quality of play and by proxy, the fan experience. If he was the latter he’d have seen that Pop truly did him a double service by resting his stars instead of playing them.
In resting his starters for the Heat game Pop doubled down, albeit it unintentionally, on entertaining, high quality basketball. The Spurs’ JV squad took Miami to the wire, losing to the world champs 100-105 in what was a very close game. And the game that Pop was focused on against Memphis went into overtime and was a very quality Spurs win. So instead of watching a beleaguered Spurs squad on the tail end of an exhausting road trip gassing out against a well rested Heat team and watching an entire fourth quarter of garbage time, and then watching the Spurs no-show against Memphis two days later, Pop gave NBA fans a handful of energetic no names a chance to give Miami a run for their money on Wednesday and then on Friday a classic battle of the big men in Memphis. Resting your stars: It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It doesn’t detract from the fan experience, it adds to it. And if Stern is so blinded by the bright lights in the big city that he can’t see that, then it’s certainly time for him to go.
The second misapprehension that’s been put forth by the media again and again is that Pop’s choice to sit his players was a clear “Fuck you,” to the league. Let it be said here and heard ’round the world that when Pop sends a message to the league there will be no ambiguity about it. His decision to send his players home was strictly a basketball decision. It’s the next time we see Pop square off against the league that it will be a big fat F-bomb to Stern and his cronies.
I imagine it playing out in their January 9th game against the Lakers. They’ve conveniently got another game in Memphis two nights later. The Laker game is nationally televised, with a solid rivalry narrative building from the long history of antimony between the two aging Western Conference giants. ESPN will do its job of building the national NBA audience up to a raging froth by pushing all the classic matchups: Howard vs. Duncan, Nash vs. Parker, Ginobli vs. Devin Ebanks. The LA crowd will be classically venomous. Jack Nicholson will show up in a throwback “Shining” costume to try and spook the Spurs. Spike Lee will bouncing up and down on the sidelines in a throwback Tim Duncan Wake Forest jersey for no reason whatsoever. The starters will be introduced from each team, the crowd will roar as the Laker’s D12 wins the tip, surely the start to an instant classic, double overtime Lakers-Spurs slugfest. Then, just as Nash passes the half court line, a whistle blows, stopping the action dead; timeout San Antonio. Pop will call his starters over to the sideline and sub in the second unit, who will play the rest of the game while his starters ride the pine (or whatever material they make those chairs out of now) after a grueling 10 seconds of high quality NBA action. That, my friends is a clear F U to the league who attempts to dictate to its coaches who can and can’t play on any given night. And I, for one, know that the one guy in the league who truly doesn’t give a shit about anything but winning has the chutzpah to pull it off.