NBA: Where Spurs sitting happens
The Spurs raised eyebrows by resting some healthy stars in a loss at Denver
The NBA didn't take issue with Gregg Popovich's decision; neither did Mark Cuban
Fans pay the price when stars sit during the long season, but it's buyer beware
There's been a compelling game of high-stakes poker going on this week at New York's Madison Square Garden. Kobe Bryant hung 61 points on Mike D'Antoni's squad Monday and then, two nights later, LeBron James rolled in for a see-your-61, raise-you-a-52-point-near-triple-double performance.
Now it's Friday, and who better to continue the one-upmanship than a Celtics crew capable on any given night of three-upmenship? Unless, of course, Doc Rivers decides that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett should just, y'know, sit on the bench all evening.
Rivers surely would be within his rights, even as he'd be disappointing hoops aficionados, a few VIPS and other heavy hitters turning out at MSG for the defending champions' second and final visit to Manhattan. But be real -- this is the tail end of a back-to-back for the Celtics, who must be tuckered and drained less than 24 hours after their emotional overtime loss to the Lakers on Thursday night in Boston. Besides, there's a game Sunday to worry about and prep for, a matinee against the extremely well-rested Spurs back at the TD Banknorth Garden.
How well-rested? Most of the Spurs last played at Denver on Tuesday in a 104-96 loss. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Michael Finley, however, haven't played since Monday, when San Antonio beat the Warriors 110-105 in overtime in Oakland. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich unexpectedly gave them the Tuesday game off. Together. En masse. As a group.
Cue the dramatic piano music: The NBA: Where DNP-CDs happen. Where this (slo-mo shot of a Colorado kid in the crowd wearing a Parker jersey, his smile turning upside down as his pop explains what the other Pop is doing) happens.
Where nothing out of the league office in New York happens, either. No fine. No rebuke. No rain checks for the disappointed children.
Apparently no double standard, either. An NBA spokesman said that, while the league didn't like Popovich's decision to turn Broadway into summer stock, critics were wrong if they thought the Spurs got away with something that, say, Dallas owner Mark Cuban and his coaches might not. It was an easy suspicion based on the former's good standing and clout within the NBA vs. the latter's track record as a relentless pain in commissioner David Stern's backside. Don't forget, the league has stood idly by for several years now as teams have rested starters, shut down superstars or otherwise "tanked'' late in each season to prepare for the playoffs or chase a few more draft-lottery balls.
The league doesn't intervene when Shaquille O'Neal and his bosses in Phoenix routinely circle dates on the schedule to skip games, a preemptive tactic to keep the big man's bunions from barking at him. Other players in other cities get occasional nights off, too, usually a nod to their age or extreme workload. It's just unusual to see four of them, all at once, heading to the bench like The Simpsons' bum-rushing their couch in the opening credits. We tend to expect two current All-Stars, tired but otherwise healthy, and four of a team's top five scorers (with Ginobili's hip bruise the only real injury) to break more of a sweat on game night than the courtside food servers.
Cuban, you should know, was fine with what Popovich did. The Mavericks owner also didn't think that he and his coaches would have been treated any more harshly had they picked a night to plant Nowitzki, Kidd and Terry on the bench.
"Don't have a problem with it at all,'' Cuban responded in an e-mail. "Fans come for the experience, to root for their favorite team and to enjoy the friends, family or associates they come with. The best experience is a close game that your team wins. I think it's far more like football than reporters realize. Fans root for the name on the front of the uniform more than on the back.
"There are probably two exceptions to that: Kobe and LeBron,'' he added. "Fans would be disappointed if they don't play.''
Some would add Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul to that must-see short list, but Cuban's point was "sit'' happens in the long, physically demanding and mentally exhausting NBA regular season. Caveat Emptor isn't some mad-skilled, 7-foot center prospect from the Ukraine, it's an old Latin principle for "Let the buyer beware.'' Injuries are a part of this -- Jameer Nelson, Michael Redd, Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bogut, Elton Brand and their teams, all just in the last few days -- and NBA ticket buyers come to accept this.
Hard economic times demand smarter shopping than usual, though. Fans who choose and pay for in September or October the games they'll attend in January, February and March need to factor in these back-to-back scenarios. If the NBA were truly market-sensitive, or brutally honest, it would price tickets for any game in which one or both teams was playing on a second consecutive night in a "two for one'' or "buy one, half off the second'' package. Coaches, players and even gamblers know what they typically get -- rubber legs, glassy eyes, 44 minutes of gas in a 48-minute tank -- from teams in tail-end efforts; fans should get wise to it, too.
They also need to factor in the Spurs' and Popovich's practice of treating the regular season the way most NBA coaches treat the preseason. It's simply prelude, six months rather than four weeks to get his team tuned up for the games that matter most. Fans in San Antonio are fine with this -- they get full helpings of their favorite players on most nights, have ample opportunity to catch Duncan, Parker and Ginobili some other day and are quite content with the results (four NBA titles in 10 years). Besides, it wasn't as if Popovich held out those guys from a home game.
That -- the whereabouts of this move -- caused some folks to infer a message from Popovich's decision. So did the bluntness with which it was executed (all four, all night, rather than cameo minutes), its timing (the Spurs were facing no games over the next four days) and Popovich's deadpan remarks that night. Parker's head had swelled from another All-Star berth, the coach said, while Duncan had become a pest about renegotiating. Ha ha, nudge nudge, wink wink. Right.
Whatever that message might have been, though, and to whom it was directed, stayed pretty opaque. (Popovich could not be reached to explain his rationale.) People were left to guess: Was Popovich making a point about the tough turnaround, from Bay Area to Rocky Mountains, losing an hour to time zones and another hour just getting from the Denver airport to downtown? Was it a gripe about back-to-backs in general? This was San Antonio's 11th of 18 such pairs, not at all how the Spurs like to roll (they never face back-to-backs when they're winning rings in the spring).
Maybe Popovich was making a point to NBA headquarters, maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was trying to get into the Nuggets' heads by sacrificing a tiebreaker game (that the Spurs might have lost anyway) and still nearly winning with his JV. Maybe he was being the ultimate polite guest -- for every person in the stands who was bummed by not seeing the Spurs' stars, there must have been 100 who went home happy that Denver won. Maybe he was galvanizing his bench guys for rigors to come or otherwise flexing genius that is beyond most NBA mortals, in that Kasparov-like chessmaster's ability to think 10 moves ahead and win May games in February.
Me, I'm going to give it the best spin possible: Maybe Popovich, an extreme "team'' guy, is a closet loather of fantasy basketball leagues and just wanted to wreak havoc for a night on those who slobber over stats. The trouble comes when other coaches -- including Cleveland's Mike Brown and the Lakers' Phil Jackson -- feel that way, and decide to make their points about it in your town.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.