Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Report: Kevin Love seeks more medical opinions, may delay announcing timetable

    Apr 27, 2015, 2:29 PM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwzjymvhyzgwzgy5njixztvmzwrlzgzmymqxyza3ytg52 AP

    Cavaliers gave him a chance to wait by sweeping Celtics

  2. Two years removed from being a top recruit, Florida’s Chris Walker declares for NBA draft

    Apr 27, 2015, 12:26 PM EDT

    Tennessee v Florida Getty Images

    What does Walker’s cratered draft stock say about Billy Donovan?

  3. Report: Cavaliers stated plan to avenge Kevin Love’s injury

    Apr 27, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT

    If that was their plan, they executed it well

  4. Report: If Kevin Love leaves Cavaliers, Lakers are team to beat in free agency

    Apr 27, 2015, 10:24 AM EDT

    Kevin Love, Tarik Black AP

    Celtics were reportedly gaining ground before Kelly Olynyk

  5. Paul Pierce trolls Drake, Raptors after sweep

    Apr 27, 2015, 9:46 AM EDT

    Wizards v Raptors Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Game 2 Getty Images

    Wizards forward started talking before series, hasn’t stopped

  6. Kelly Olynyk on Kevin Love’s accusation of intentionally injuring him: ‘That’s ridiculous’

    Apr 27, 2015, 9:07 AM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwzjymvhyzgwzgy5njixztvmzwrlzgzmymqxyza3ytg52 AP

    Celtics forward: ‘I would never intentionally hurt Kevin or anyone else’

  7. Watch Monta Ellis drop 31 on Rockets, lead Mavericks to win

    Apr 27, 2015, 8:30 AM EDT

    Monta Ellis Monta Ellis

    Somebody looks a lot more comfortable with no Rajon Rondo around.

  8. Rumor: Kevin Love out minimum of two weeks, will likely miss most or all of series vs. Bulls

    Apr 27, 2015, 2:34 AM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwzjymvhyzgwzgy5njixztvmzwrlzgzmymqxyza3ytg5 AP

    Love being out could be an issue in the next round as the Cavs take on the Bulls.

  9. Monta Ellis, J.J. Barea pairing ignites Mavericks offense, gets Dallas Game 4 win over Houston

    Apr 27, 2015, 1:38 AM EDT

    Monta Ellis, Trevor Ariza AP

    The question is can Dallas replicate all they did right on the road?

  10. Wizards blow out Raptors to complete first-round sweep

    Apr 26, 2015, 9:33 PM EDT

    Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors

    Another stellar performance from John Wall buries Toronto’s season.

  11. Watch Chris Paul, Blake Griffin combine for big days to even Clippers with Spurs (VIDEO)

    Apr 26, 2015, 9:17 PM EDT

    Blake Griffin, ,Chris Paul Blake Griffin, ,Chris Paul

    The Clippers needed their big stars to step up Sunday or they were going to be in a very deep hole. They got it.

  12. Chris Paul scores 34 points, Clippers win Game 4 to even series with Spurs

    Apr 26, 2015, 6:31 PM EDT

    Tiago Splitter, Chris Paul AP

    Blake Griffin grabbed 19 rebounds, and Austin Rivers (!) chipped in 16 points in 17 minutes off the bench.

Featured video

Stephen Curry starting to define playoff legacy
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. R. Rondo (4839)
  2. C. Parsons (4431)
  3. K. Durant (3842)
  4. N. Mirotic (3809)
  5. D. Lee (3774)
  1. K. Bryant (3622)
  2. T. Parker (3543)
  3. P. George (3488)
  4. P. Beverley (3278)
  5. K. Lowry (3273)