'Restgate' reveals tension between sport, business of entertainment
Despite best intentions, Gregg Popovich did harm in resting his top four players
Spurs need to realize impact on the rest of NBA and hold Popovich accountable
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Let's move straight to your questions:
In responding to Gregg Popovich's repeated resting (and sending home) of star players during the regular season, why can't the league impose a simple rule change? Here's my proposal:
Do not pay players their game checks unless they are suited up ready to play on the bench if healthy, or have a documented injury that causes them to miss at least three consecutive games (or some other appropriate number of games). Only injured players will be excused from attending games and still receive their game checks. Popovich may then choose to not play a star, but the player will still be in the arena ready to play (and warm up, sign autographs and at least be seen by fans) or else he will not be paid. I doubt Tony Parker would give up $150,000 to go home and rest in this situation. Is this solution viable?
I don't believe we can control a coach's decision to not play a player. However, sending players home to rest sets a bad precedent and hurts the image of the game.
-- David Folsom, Salt Lake City, Utah
The owners would love to enlist your idea, David. If they had their way, they would compel players to surrender their contract guarantees in a variety of ways. But the players proved once again during the lockout last year that they aren't going to surrender their guaranteed money.
The kind of rule you're suggesting would have to be bargained collectively with the players, who would never go for it. They would not allow Popovich or anyone else to have any say over whether they would lose $150,000 or any other amount of guaranteed salary.
The Spurs' decision to send home their top four available players -- Tim Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green -- before a nationally televised game last week at Miami shows how the relationship between players and management has evolved over the years. In the days when players were making less than $100,000 in salary, teams were more inclined to ride them hard until they broke down. Now you see players being viewed as investments and long-term assets, to be protected by the franchises that pay them eight-figure salaries. Management would rather rest a valuable player than expose him to injury.
One reason why the NBA and Major League Baseball treat their best players with so much caution (as in the case of the Nationals shutting down Stephen Strasburg a month before the playoffs) is because the players' contracts are guaranteed. NFL players aren't treated with as much sensitivity because the culture of football is different from other sports, but also because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. If a player breaks down in football, then the team can escape its financial obligation -- not so in baseball or basketball.
Popovich's treatment of his players over the years is the standard for all NBA teams. The Spurs are on their way to a 16th straight season of 50 victories*. They've extended their run of contention around Duncan far longer than anyone imagined possible in this era of free agency, and at the heart of their success is the trust between Popovich and his players. They believe in each other, and Popovich affirms that belief by emphasizing their welfare and looking out for them, as he did when he sent them home before the Miami game. His methods work, which is why so many rival franchises hire Popovich's employees in hopes of recreating the success he's had in San Antonio.
(*During the lockout-shortened 1999 season they won 74 percent of their games, which would equate to 61 victories on a normal schedule.)
At the same time, I wonder if in the future the NBA will seek rules that define when players can be sent home, tying the departures to a doctor's orders. Despite his best intentions, Popovich did real harm to the NBA by using a nationally televised game between two of the best teams to demonstrate that the regular season isn't as important as the TV networks and the NBA itself make it out to be. Everyone knows that the regular season is too long, and many fans who are critical of pro basketball already have the idea that players don't much care whether they lose a game here or there as long as they can cash their guaranteed paycheck. This is a point of view that the NBA is always trying to disprove, and for many sports fans it was affirmed by Popovich.
There is no better coach or franchise leader in the NBA than Popovich. He is the best there is. All of his NBA rivals wish they could run their franchises as efficiently as he runs his. His team wins because he and his players are committed to a cause larger than themselves. In the same sense, the Spurs' organization is also contributing to the larger cause of its league. This should be obvious enough: The reason Popovich earns a reported $6 million salary is because his Spurs and other teams throughout the NBA sell tickets and provide entertainment for TV. It is not right for him to cash his large paycheck and then not be held accountable to the demands of the showcase events that fund his salary.
Teams throughout the NBA use dynamic ticketing plans by which they charge fans higher prices for an individual ticket to the best games. How would the Spurs like it if they charged extra money for their fans to attend the Miami game March 31 -- only to have the Heat send home LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen? If this became common practice in the NBA, then it would undermine TV contracts and ticketing plans for all teams, including the Spurs.
The NBA may be able to come up with a rule that prevents Popovich from sending his players home in the future. But I don't see how he could be forced to play his players in certain games, and I can't imagine why the NBA would want to force him to do so. Popovich's method of pacing his players has been a boon to the NBA by extending the careers of his stars and setting the highest standards of excellence.
The only mistake by Popovich was to make the entire league look bad by upstaging a showcase TV event in the worst kind of way. It wasn't his intention, but nonetheless he made fans and TV networks feel like fools for investing their money in the NBA's regular season. Imagine how NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would have reacted to a similar incident in his league -- he would have punished any of his teams at least as hard as Stern hit the Spurs.
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