It was more than a showdown of burdensome scheduling that brought San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich face-to-face with David Stern at high noon in the NBA commissioner’s corral. It was a longtime clash of priorities and values, the league’s mandate for star-studded matchups versus the Alamo City team that NBA Showtime forgot.
In fining the Spurs $250,000 Friday, Stern insisted that Popovich had disrespected the game and its fans by resting his best players while fielding a short-handed squad that still narrowly lost to the Heat, 105-100, in Miami on Thursday night.
Popovich maintained that “my priority is my basketball team and what’s best for it." Playing a fourth game in five nights, he did what he has done before: sent home his three veteran stars — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — and added Danny Green, a starting guard, for good measure.
With swingmen Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson injured, the Spurs were left with nine players to dress for a nationally televised game on TNT and Stern in a furious, disciplinary mood.
“I apologize to all NBA fans," he said in a hasty statement released just before tipoff. “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
But despite Popovich’s claim that this was a basketball operational plan that he had hatched before the season after surveying the schedule, it could also be seen as a challenge to Stern that was more than a decade in the making. Though he has rested his big three before — most recently at Utah last spring, even as he battled Oklahoma City for the top playoff seeding in the Western Conference — Popovich is too smart not to have anticipated Stern’s reaction this time.
He knows that no assets are more precious to Stern than his negotiated television deals, which he views as the NBA’s lifeblood. Back in the 1990s, Stern and the Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf wound up in a litigious row over Reinsdorf’s refusal to remove his team’s games from free national cable television in what Stern saw as unhealthy competition with the league’s network deals.
TNT has an exclusive window on Thursday nights with the NBA, which schedules that night lightly and typically tries to provide the network with an attractive game. In this case, it was Miami-San Antonio in a classic matchup of contrasting championship cultures.
The defending champion Heat were constructed in one sensational free-agent swoop that added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade. The Spurs have been built and rebuilt through the draft without wild spending binges.
Since the no-drama Duncan arrived in San Antonio in 1997 to team with the acerbic and independent-thinking Popovich, the Spurs have not only won four championships and had the best winning percentage among all teams in the four major North American team sports; they have also been a model franchise, operating without conflict or controversy.
“No character issues, professionalism, preparation — everything people always say they want, it’s all happening right here," Brent Barry, now a broadcaster, said in 2007 when he played for the Spurs and they last won the NBA title.
While deeply respected for the way they conduct their business, the Spurs have never generated much national acclaim or substantial television ratings, and they have developed some resentment over a perception of their not being sexy enough to be one of the league’s poster teams.
“I think maybe there’s a little smirk on the coach’s face and on the organization’s face that it’s not exciting to people outside of San Antonio," Barry said in 2007.
With Duncan’s continued support, Popovich’s tenets have argued — against league trends — that the 21st century NBA can still be all about the team, without catering to egos and outside distractions. Players signing with San Antonio must agree to adhere to that environment and, in return, Popovich will reward those who assimilate.
Said guard Gary Neal, who led the Spurs with 20 points off the bench on Thursday night, said, “Coach Pop is the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, and he did what’s best for us."
It can be argued that Coach Pop overdid the father figure role this time. He might have rested players on different nights, given the Spurs’ deep roster. Even with the injuries to Leonard and Jackson, it’s not as if the Spurs were in a scheduling minefield in recent games against porous Toronto, Orlando and the then-winless Washington Wizards.
While Duncan is 36 and Ginobili is 35, Parker is in his prime, only 30. Green is 25. Was Popovich in effect telling Stern: “no one’s ever wanted to watch us on national television, so why should it matter who we put out there now?"
Popovich would argue that the league didn’t after the Utah game last spring and, in fact, the deputy commissioner Adam Silver said he would not question as credentialed a coach as Popovich. Days later, Popovich sat in his office and said: “I’m not concerned with finishing first. I’m trying to win a championship and that’s all."
That remained his public rationale, though he conceded Thursday night, “If I was taking my 6-year-old son or daughter to the game, I’d want him or her to see everybody."
The basis of the fine, Stern countered, was that Thursday night was the Spurs’ “only regular-season visit to Miami," and they failed to inform “the Heat, the media or the league office in any timely way."
A $250,000 fine did not rise to Stern’s vow of “substantial sanctions," an indication that he had second thoughts or was talked out of further punishment after Popovich received much support in the news media. On top of that, the Spurs have unfailingly represented Stern’s league well, even without its stars and down to nine men.
It took a late 3-point jumper by the Heat’s Ray Allen to subdue the Spurs’ junior varsity in what turned out to be a compelling underdog story, “Hoosiers" at South Beach. Marketing savant that he is, Stern might even be a little envious of how Popovich turned a November NBA game into a national debate on competitive ethics.
A smirking Popovich will no doubt consider the $250,000 well spent.