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David Stern: Be careful where you step in punishing Popovich, Spurs

Nov 30, 2012, 7:59 AM EDT

File photo of NBA Commissioner Stern speaks in New York Reuters

Three times last season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the same game. He’s done it before then as well. And he is far from the only coach to rest multiple key players in a game — Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and other coaches have done it.

And while fans and media sometimes grumbled — “people paid good money to see those stars” — those moves always came without comment from the NBA.

But when Popovich rested his big three on Thursday night for a much anticipated, nationally televised game against the Miami Heat, fans were upset and David Stern stepped in with a statement.

“I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

This post is not a debate about whether Popovich did the right thing — I think he was well within his rights, our own Brett Pollakoff and plenty fans who tweeted me disagree saying Popovich needed to think of the league and the fans. That is a discussion for another day. (The game being competitive down to the final minute also has little bearing here.)

My point is this — Stern is about to change either NBA rules or at least how the rules are interpreted and enforced by going after the Spurs with some kind of fine and punishment. And once he does that he sets a new precedent that has to be carried out for every team all season long.

And everywhere Stern and the league step with this new rule there are landmines.

With a punishment to the Spurs, the league is saying Popovich’s move — resting healthy players at the end of a road trip even if they are tired — is bad for the overall business of the NBA and cannot be tolerated. While Stern has always been about marketing and league perception first and foremost, he has not ventured into telling coaches how to coach before and a punishment to the Spurs changes that.

David Stern may feel the fan’s frustration from Thursday but he has a lot of questions to think about if he is going to punish the Spurs:

• Why is this situation in Miami a violation of league rules when Popovich did the same thing in Portland last year and it wasn’t? More to the point, how is that line drawn? What is and is not a violation?

• Is it something that is not okay to do in November but would be permitted later in the season, say March? Is the disappointed 12-year-old who doesn’t get to see his favorite players in November justified in his anger but the 12-year-old who has tickets the final week of the season is not?

• Is resting players something that cannot be done for nationally televised games but is okay to do in other games? Does what market the game is in matter? To use the Spurs case as an example, was it wrong to do this in Miami on a Thursday but would have been okay in Orlando on Wednesday? (Be careful in saying publicly that the fans and ratings in big markets are more important that smaller ones.)

• How do you define what players can and cannot be sat? If it is wrong for Popovich to sit major stars like Duncan and Parker, what about if Bucks coach Scott Skiles sits Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to rest them next week. Is that different? What players can and can’t be sat out? Is this a burden that falls only on teams with superstar players?

• Stern can’t use the “competitiveness” argument because the Spurs almost won that game, this is about the NBA’s star system and Stern pretty much has to own up to that here.

• What happens when Popovich wants to rest Duncan and to avoid a league fine Duncan suddenly has a minor foot or knee injury? By just a few weeks into any season you could make a case for every NBA player having a minor injury they should rest.

Wherever Stern steps on this issue there are potential landmines. He can’t say its wrong to do this in Miami but fine in Portland or other smaller market. He doesn’t want to get into dictating who a coach can and can’t play, but this skirts up against it. There is no easy way to define it. If he starts trying to define it by being competitive the Spurs were that.

In the past the league did not take action in these situations. Stern is changing how the rules are enforced if he acts to fine the Spurs here, and he is setting a new precedent that is going to apply to every team in the league going forward. He better think this through. Carefully.

Or it might be smarter if he just walked away from it altogether.

  1. fredagsedb - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    I heard that the league fined the Lakers in 1990 for resting Magic and Worthy in a game. Is that not true, or was there another reason back then?

    Otherwise I think you make a lot good points, and it would be a slippery slope for Stern to fine for this.

  2. nagidac - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:13 AM

    I can’t wait until this dictator is no longer in charge, although it could be a “the devil you know” scenario. If Stern does fine the Spurs, I hope they haul him into court or have some other type of legal recourse. They only lost the game by 5 points, and might have actually lined up against the Heat better than with the starters. These guys were getting the chance of a lifetime to go up against the champs and they almost beat them. Hats off to them.

    • nbascreed - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:27 AM

      I’m sorry, I have to disagree with all of you who think Stern is wrong. In 1997 (when Pip was out for a long stretch) I heard Jordan say in an interview that one of the reasons he plays so hard and is so intense every single gam is because he knows there is some dad in the crowd with his son who paid good money to see him this one time and that they deserved to see him. (I’m paraphrasing and continue to do so) He also said that Phil had come to him many times before after seeding had been established and asked him if he wanted to rest and Jordan explicitly said no.

      If Jordan can maintain that respect for the fans with all the demands off him both on the court and off in every city he went to, then Pop et al can too. The league first and foremost is in the ENTERTAINMENT BUSINESS. Stern knows that if other coaches/gms/owners start doing this then the TV Sponsors who are financing the majority of the NBA will simply pullback. Why would Coke pay big money to advertise when they can’t look at a schedule and be reasonably assured that Kobe, Lebron or D12 will be playing. This is a slippery slope, but its the precedent of “resting” players that slippery not fining them.

      • starks3 - Nov 30, 2012 at 6:43 PM

        Its so funny that every person myself included that says the NBA is entertainment first gets 800 thumbs down lol

  3. acdc363 - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:13 AM

    Nice article Kurt!

    • pglive21 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:15 AM

      Totally agree. This is the best writing I’ve seen on this blog in a while Kurt. Keep it up!

      • ff56101 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:57 AM

        Kurt, a good article? Haha, just kidding, this article raises very valid arguments.

      • Kurt Helin - Nov 30, 2012 at 11:04 AM

        It was bound to happen :)

      • ron05342 - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:20 PM


        You should send this list to Stern’s e-mail. These points are all very valid and he should have the opportunity to really consider them.

        I will add another: What if Pop was forced to play the guys in this game and they got injured doing so? It stands to reason that tired players are more prone to injury. Especially older ones.

  4. anotheryx - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    Stern is punishing Spurs for who they are / playing against rather than what they did, as this less a competition integrity issue than teams tanking for lottery (happens a lot).
    What is different in this case is the entertainment value, and since it’s a major selling point for NBA they have to take it more seriously than other sports.

    • sabatimus - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:39 AM

      I think if Stern were really worried about getting top dollar, instead of being stubborn as hell, he’d do something to help correct how bad the refereeing is instead of protecting the officials like they are saints. Shaq’s profanitied comment about the officials back in 2005 or so still holds water today. And if anyone thinks Tim Donaghy was and is the only corrupt official in the NBA, the Warren Commission just called and wants to thaw out Jack Ruby.

  5. sabatimus - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    I initially thought it was a good idea for Stern to step in and penalize a team for doing something like this…but then I read this article and thought WOW there are so many variables here that it’s impossible to account for them all, or even most of them. Here’s another one: what’s stopping the team and/or players from lying and saying they’re having a bum knee today when they’re really not? Is the league seriously going to make such players go through medical tests to determine whether or not to enforce this new penalty? There’s so much inherent red tape here that such a rule could never be enforced properly.

  6. starks3 - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:33 AM

    Many people are confusing this with ‘Sport’. Yes it is a sport and there is strategy involved in this move, however the NBA is an entertainment business and it is not entertaining to see the players that were put on that court last night. I understand the whole “David Stern can’t tell the coaches what to do” arguement, but lets not forget how Popo is able to be the 5th highest paid coach in all of sports according to Forbes. He is able to make 6 Mil. a year because of TV contracts, fan attendance, etc. If people are not entertained they will not show up and will not tune in to the games. I did not watch last night, even though I planned to originally, but I was not going to watch a product where the outcome was pre-determined since Popo intentially threw last nights game. THAT is NOT ENTERNAINMENT!!

    As far as punishment goes it is simple. Pull the Spurs off of all Nationally televised games for the rest of the year. It will hit their pocket book indirectly, it will also make free agents think twice about going to somewhere that will limit their endorsement appeal due to no National coverage. Sponsors would think twice about endorsing a player that is never on national tv.

    • raidmagic - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:51 AM

      I think you are wrong saying that last nights game wasn’t entertaining. I loved it. I thought it was a great game, it was played with good energy and was in doubt until the final minute. If the whole point is to put an entertaining product on the floor then last night was a success for the NBA.

      As for Stern he needs to shut up and go away.

    • taketimeandfind - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:06 AM

      Sorry you didn’t see the game as it was quite entertaining. And as for banning the spurs from nationally televised games, I’m sure Pop would love not having to do those interviews. Not to mention they do not play many nationally televised games compared to Boston, LA, OKC, etc.

      Besides, what would happen when they make the playoffs?

    • blueintown - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:35 AM

      I’m surprised this statement is as unpopular as it is. It’s all fairly accurate. Yes, last nights game proved ultimately to be entertaining, but would it not have been more entertaining with the addition of multiple elite players? It’s easy to blanket this as a power grab by Stern, but his interest is the continued financial success of the league, and the continued financial success of the league depends on a premium product.

      • rtfinch - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:05 AM

        Yes, he’s choosing financial success over the players health in the long run. Would you rather have a good game in November of the regular season, or a healthy Spurs team in the playoffs?

      • starks3 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:44 AM

        @blueintown-I didn’t expect a favorable response from my post as this is more a NBC fan site and not a CNBC financial site. Things are looked at from an X’s and O’s perspective as opposed to $$ and cents viewpoint.

        My question to the 40+ people who thumbed down my response is this, Is my punishment idea fair? Popo and any other NBA coach can do what they want in regards to their roster, but with that said the NBA/TV Partners would be able to then decide to not show those teams Nationally.

      • blueintown - Nov 30, 2012 at 4:55 PM

        @rtfinch – I’m not taking a side one way or the other, simply acknowledging it is a compelling dilemma. Of course you want a healthy Spurs team in the playoffs, but the fact that this was clearly scheduled as a marquee showcase for the league has to factor in here somehow. Players and coaches like to blather on about how the regular season is meaningless, but that’s not true. The regular season determines playoff positioning, in addition to providing the league with several months worth of revenue. Of course there’s an assumed risk when you purchase a ticket (especially season tickets, ask Bulls fans how they feel about that), but premium tickets are sold at premium prices for a reason. A Heat-Spurs matchup goes for more than a Heat-Wizards matchup, and rightfully so.

        starks3 – I’m in favor of flex scheduling regardless of this situation. But I’m not sure how stripping the Spurs of primetime appearances punishes them as opposed to the league as a whole. It seems to me that this should be part of the cable network TV deal. There should be some sort of competitive good faith clause that dictates nationally televised games be at least attempted to be played at full capacity. I fully understand the difficulty in enforcing such a rule, and it would take some legal language far superior to mine, but wouldn’t last night be a clear violation of such a clause? Perhaps ending in some sort of fine to be paid by the Spurs, and perhaps the league to the network?

    • unxpexted1 - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:38 PM

      I think this is an absolutely brilliant idea. There are always two peoples interest at work in sports and what Pop did completely goes against the interest of the league. He(Pop) does have the right to do what he would like to do with his team, but what is right for the team is not always whats right for the franchise, and in turn the league in all cases. Refusing them airtime is one way to punish the team/franchise without hurting the team itself. Spurs rest your players all you want, but we will not guarantee you TV time if we cant ensure you will put the best product you have available on the court at all times. I love it. The spurs cant take care of their interest which is the games and keeping their players healthy, and the league can take care of their interest from an entertainment standpoint.

      Even though Pop does this type of thing, i do think its funny that he chose THIS particulary game to do it. You can say it was for rest, but you have plenty of time to rest players, I find it hard to believe there were not other motivating factors beyond basically to do this.

      • starks3 - Nov 30, 2012 at 6:54 PM

        @blueintown-It would hurt the Spurs in the long run, especially if there was carry over to future seasons. Obviously you can’t ban them from playoffs, but for the regular season that would be pretty easy to do. Time for a hypothetical example: Do you think Lebron would have the #1 selling jersey if he played on the Spurs and they were never televised? Probably not. No national games= less interest by fans outside of the immediate market. Less fans=less merchandise that gets sold at say a Footlocker in Pittsburgh. Also if Lebron is a free agent do you think Sprite would pay him the same $$ playing for a team that isnt on national tv for 6 months vs playing for a team that is on 20+ times a year? As a result free agents would go elsewhere to make more endorsement money, etc.

      • blueintown - Dec 1, 2012 at 9:38 AM

        starks – But that’s the point. If LeBron did play for the Spurs they would be on national television even more than they are now, because they would be a (more) phenomenal team. That exposure would drive all the sales you’re referring to above. If the Spurs, as an organization, made the decision to sit LeBron (which very well may be in the best long-term interest of the team) when they played, say, the Lakers, it would damage the brand. You can absorb the impact of one marquee game, but Stern’s punishment is about setting a precedent so that this does not become a recurring theme.

  7. Gordon - Nov 30, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    Kurt, I would be careful about critiquing Herr Stern. I’ve heard he has the ability to make your head explode, like that scene from Scanners.

  8. hwatt - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    Maybe these are the ramblings of a lame duck commissioner, allowing himself to say and do things he’d never otherwise do. Still waiting on him to address biased officiating…

  9. FinFan68 - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:36 AM

    If you blame Stern for his position you must also blame NBA fans in general. The game itself is not promoted anymore–specific players are. The argument that fans pay to see certain players actually boosts the argument for Stern’s stance. Only a relatively small number of fans paid for that “inferior” game. Millions of basketball fans were denied the opportunity to watch the marquis match-up on national television. Those fans are not out of any money individually but they most certainly drive the large TV contracts that sustain the league financially.

    I see the argument for both sides as valid. The coach is in charge of who plays but those decisions have an adverse effect on the current marketing strategy of which Stern is responsible. The question remains: Do NBA fans want to watch quality basketball between two teams or would they rather watch a few “stars”?

  10. eagles512 - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:50 AM

    Simple-fine Bd suspend him for sending guys home and not making them be with the team.

  11. azarkhan - Nov 30, 2012 at 9:57 AM

    Stern is a complete ass. There is no NBA rule that says you must play all of your players. A coach must be allowed to coach his team, period. If Stern imposes any sanction, the Spurs should take his sorry ass to court.i

  12. umrguy42 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    “Just walk away…”

    • umrguy42 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:22 AM

      Crud. Shoulda linked here:

  13. bougin89 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    I’m just fed up with Stern. I can’t wait until he is gone.

  14. davidly - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    Spot on, Kurt.

    As far as Popvich’s choosing this particular game to rest his trio, it makes perfect sense: he was simply protecting his guys in their mid-thirties on the tail-end of a second back-to-back on the road against a trio of well-rested and explosive, and relatively young talent–the older of whom is actually known to injure opposing players.

    Stern threat to penalize him for protecting his players brings to mind the–in my opinion, apt–“plantation comment” an ex-player made a couple of years ago.

  15. larrybrown43 - Nov 30, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Too many games. Too many teams. Too much travel. All factors make for a watered down sport. This is a tell tale sign to the fact.

  16. albertmn - Nov 30, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    The NBA really needs to look at how they set up a schedule. Teams will play a bunch of games in a few days, and then sit for 4-5 days without a game. That is so stupid and certainly is just as bad for the product on the court as what the Spurs did.

    If Stern tries to do anything, I hope the Spurs fight it. So, if the Spurs had started the three players, played them 3 minutes, and then pulled them and not brought them back, would that have been fine? You certainly can’t legislate how many minutes a player has to play. Stern is probably getting more heat from bookmakers in Vegas than from any actual fans that were in the stands.

  17. thefox61 - Nov 30, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    This is what happens when you let a senior with dementia run a non-profit organization. Yes, the NBA is a non-profit organization. Which means they are tax exempt. A mega multi-million dollar corporation that doesn’t pay taxes wants to make up rules, fine and penalize a team for deciding how they should best manage their team. Hopefully the NBA survives the next 1 1/2 years.

    • Kurt Helin - Nov 30, 2012 at 3:09 PM

      The league will point out that while the NBA itself is a non-profit the individual teams are not and they pay federal, state and local taxes on the revenue they generate.

  18. 1historian - Nov 30, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    IF Stern has brain one he will do a quick Rosanne Rosanadanna – “Never mind” and then disappear for a while.

    IF is the biggest word in the language.

  19. dysraw1 - Nov 30, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    you know if last nights game would have been a blowout then maybe herr Stern would have a point. but to question a coach of pops integrity. about how he uses team is blasphemy.his team competed as all ways fans shouldn’t trip because the so-called stars aren’t available. thats how you know what kind of team you really have.

  20. bjerkrulez - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    Stern has his point, about the NBA being a business, no one can argue with that
    But Pop clearly sees the big picture, he wouldn’t risk his stars to injury after going on a recent 5-0 streak.

    Wouldn’t fans want to watch healthy stars come playoff time or stars not available due to a season ending injury just for the sake of the NBA getting additional revenue?

    Mr. Stern, this is the NBA, all of them are paid to play, superstars sometimes come out of nowhere (i.e. Tmac, J Oneal, J Lin, even Kobe during the early years to name a few) and all of these stars were able to shine after they were given minutes off the bench

    Heck, if i were a coach going 5-1 on every 6 games if damn fine for me as long as my top players are healthy and fresh come playoff time

    They are players, but they are also human beings who get tired just like you Mr. Stern

  21. bjerkrulez - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    What if the heat are playing the wizards on the final game of the season and they already locked up the top seed, will they be fined if they rest their big 3? Or what about a scenario when you add a stupid policy, then the players had no choice then played to avoid the team fine, then they all get major injuries?

    Stern may say, one of the risks playing in the nba are injuries, but the overall logic here is that Pops is lessening that risk by doing what he did

  22. scalfor3 - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    How can Stern punish them if they didn’t break any rules? Pop has every right to choose who to play from his roster and the league has no right to interfere with his roster decisions.

  23. sprinter293 - Nov 30, 2012 at 12:57 PM

    If I pay good money for tickets to a game, I expect to see certain players play. If they choose or their coach chooses for them too not play because they might get tired in the playoffs 6 months from now, then I am not happy.
    However I don’t know how you can change the rule. If the rule is changed and the players have to play, then what happens if a coach plays them one minute then sits them the rest of the game. Then does league dictate how many minutes they play? I just don’t see how that can work.

  24. bjerkrulez - Nov 30, 2012 at 1:24 PM

    The NBA should fix their scheduling…I mean there are weeks that has a team play 4 games in 5 days…then have almost a week off…

    It has been always money and business with Stern and his men, setup the schedule to meet the demands of TNT, ESPN, ABC etc…doesn’t matter if players get injured as long as tickets are sold and tv ratings are up

  25. magnetik713 - Nov 30, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    all about the $$$.

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