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Gregg Popovich Was Right For Resting His Starters & David Stern Should Listen To His Side

Gregg Popovich to send four of his best players home before their road game against Miami last night. It provoked David Stern to issue a missive criticizing the move, promising “substantial sanctions.” The debate about whether Popovich should have rested his most popular and important players before a nationally televised game is contentious, but it’s the reason Popovich rested them that provides David Stern an opportunity to swallow his (substantial) pride and improve the league by shortening the regular season. The chance he actually does so are paper thin, but now is the time to talk about shortening the NBA’s regular season schedule because that’s why Popovich made his decision in the first place.

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.”

Popovich was doing what was best for his basketball team. He wanted to rest his aging starters for their game against Memphis on Saturday night, and give his role players some playing time in the hope it will give them confidence moving forward if his stars are ever knocked out of a more important game. David Thorpe addresses both these issues nicely in his ESPN Insider column earlier today.

Regardless of the television audience, or Stern’s ability as commissioner to assess a fine for a coaching move like last night’s decision by Popovich, one thing is less clear, and that is what, ultimately, motivated Popovich to hold out his older stars in an early season game like last night’s? Thorpe mentions resting his starters, and that’s just the end result of four games in five nights, all of which were on the road for the Spurs. Popovich already said he’d made the decision to rest his guys for the Miami game when the schedule came out in August, despite it’s place on TNT. It’s because the NBA schedule calls for too many games in too few days. It’s just like last season, but buffered by the extra time without a lockout. The 82-game regular season would have been a problem regardless of Popovich’s actions, but since he made his decision for the betterment of the team, now is the time to talk about all these meaningless regular season games. Specifically, what Stern can do to right this wrong before he leaves his place as commissioner?

David Stern has a chance to cement his legacy as the greatest commissioner in sports. No, it’s not his successful transitioning from Bird/Magic to Jordan to Shaq/Duncan to Kobe/LeBron/Durant, it’s what he can still accomplish in the year he has left before letting Adam (not to be confused with Nate) Silver take over on February 1, 2014. David Stern could shorten the season – not for any strike concerns or CBA tiffs, but to make the NBA a better, if slightly less lucrative, product. It’ll be the capstone to a 30-plus year career as the greatest sports commissioner of all time, and that’s just the sort of designation David Stern craves. Why do you think he’s waiting until after he’s broken Pete Rozelle‘s record as longest-tenured commissioner before deciding to step away from his role.

The NBA’s 82-game regular season is too long. That much has been clear for years now, and if you ask most casual NBA fans, they generally don’t start paying a lot of attention to the league until after the NFL season winds up. It’s around this time the NBA marks their midway point to the regular season with All-Star Weekend in February. The grind of the NBA season is one of the reasons the group of NBA writers, reporters and diehards on Twitter are such a cloistered bunch. They endure a marathon of the nightly basketball, with no let up, for seven months out of the year. The season takes its toil on players, with multiple stars and important role players missing games here and there with the muscle aches and pains that go along with being a professional athlete at this level. The regular season is a grind on the fan as well, with too many games coming on too few nights. It’s almost impossible to catch all the action both for the fan and the players involved. Let’s make it easier.

If Stern knocked ten games off the schedule, but kept the current time frame of the regular season (late October to late April), we wouldn’t have to watch a star-depleted San Antonio team play the defending champions on TNT. Stern can avoid situations like last night’s, and any in the future, by offering a shorter regular season. A 72-game schedule would prevent last night’s Spurs Super Scrubs/Miami matchup from happening. A 72-game schedule would mean all teams appearing on a nationally televised game would be rested and healthy. Isn’t that what Stern wants? Is that why Popovich rested his starters? Isn’t that what every NBA fan wants?

Does the NBA need a shorter season?

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