First, let’s get to the particulars. After a full San Antonio roster easily handled the Magic in Orlando, 110-89, on Wednesday night, Popovich informed four of his top players they were taking a flight back home early to San Antonio the next day, and skipping the team’s last game of the road trip (A road trip that had them in six different NBA cities over ten days). At 10 a.m. on Thursday morning, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green all boarded a non-stop Southwest jet taking them from Orlando to San Antonio. That meant the Spurs were without four of their top players in last night’s 105-100 loss to Miami. Oh, and compounding Popovich’s decision, last night’s game against the defending champions was on national television.
Stern, to slightly understate it, was not enthused by Pop’s determination to rest his best players in front of a national television audience. He apologized to fans and issued a statement that ended with, “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.” Popovich and his team didn’t hear about the statement until after the game, but they were forthright about why they were resting such a large percentage of their team before the team’s tipped off. Popovich said it was “unwise” to play his stars, and explained his decision before the game:
“It’s the best thing for our team. Everybody has to make decisions about their schedule. We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, and not a popular decision.
It’s pretty logical. I don’t think it was a tough decision at all. It was made when the schedule came out (in August). If our best players were 23 years old or 25 years old, we might have done something different. It’s pretty easy to understand. I don’t think it’s so amazing.”
This isn’t the first time Popovich has rested such a large percentage of his starting rotation. Last April, as the NBA’s strike-shortened season was packed with back-to-back’s and even a few back-to-back-to-backs, Popovich rested a bunch of his starters towards the end of the year with a playoff berth already locked up. Deputy NBA Commissioner, and now Commissioner-in-waiting, Adam Silver, told USA Today last April (by way of Spurs Nation) that Popovich’s move to rest his starters in the last two regular season games wasn’t something the league would get involved with:
“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams, and Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”
But the last two regular season games last year weren’t on TNT against the defending champions, and no lockout this offseason means the season schedule isn’t as contracted. But that doesn’t matter because the NBA’s 82-game regular season is too long already, and that’s why Popovich made the move; it was the best decision he could make for his older squad.
The Miami game last night would be the fourth game in five nights for the Spurs, and Popovich wanted his starters rested before a showdown with the Southwest Division-leading Memphis Grizzlies. So, in essence, rather than submit his older team to their fourth game in five nights, he sent them home for an extra day’s rest before doing battle with their toughest divisional opponent this season. Said Pop:
“Everybody has to make decisions about their schedule. We’ve done this before in hopes we’re making a wiser decision and not a macho decision. Perhaps, it’ll give us an opportunity to stay on the floor with Memphis on Saturday night.”
Popovich’s move doesn’t seem so strange when taken in this context, but what about the fans who tuned in to TNT Thursday night and missed an opportunity to watch Duncan, Parker and Ginobili play together before they retire? Stern directly apologized to them in his statement, but Pop addressed that as well:
“If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I’d want him or her to see everybody. So I understand that perspective. Hopefully, people in that position will understand my perspective. My priority is my basketball team and what’s best for it.”