Setting a Dangerous Precedent

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San Antonio Spurs fans often complain that their team doesn’t get the kind of attention it deserves on a national level. While teams like the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat, monopolize the sporting headlines, the Spurs, despite being a consistent championship contender for over a decade now—and a 4-time champ—tend to fly under the radar.

This past week, however, the Spurs were the talk of the NBA world. But unfortunately it wasn’t related to their brilliant brand of basketball.

‘Restgate’, as it’s now become known in basketball parlance, has become the latest in a string of controversial incidents surrounding commissioner David Stern’s use, and some would say abuse, of executive power.
 
 

For those who need a quick refresher/were living in that proverbial cave all week, the saga began last Thursday, when Gregg Popovich decided to rest his big-3 of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker, plus Danny Green, for the much-anticipated clash with the Miami Heat. The Spurs were at the back-end of an arduous road trip—4 games in 5 days—and Popovich made his decision, in part, with the age of his superstars in mind. I say ‘in part’ because it cannot be ignored that Popovich may have been sending a message to the league about his team’s schedule, and the fact that an 82-game season is simply too long.

Whatever the intended message, Popovich’s decision was not unprecedented. Last year, albeit during a heavily congested 66-game season, he rested his big 3 on more than one occasion. And in-fact, Erik Spoelstra had made the same decision more than once too—resting James, Bosh and Wade against the Hawks and Celtics. The difference this time around, however, was that we are less than a quarter way through the NBA season—nowhere close to the end—and the Spurs-Heat game was one of only two games on the schedule that night.
 

Before tip-off Stern issued a strongly worded statement saying, “I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming”. True to his word, on Friday the Spurs were fined $250,000. Before we get into why Stern was wrong, it’s important to discuss the situation from his perspective.

As the man in-charge of the NBA, Stern is tasked with looking after the best interests of the league. He understands the importance—the VITAL importance—of television money in driving the success of the league. When TNT pays good money to broadcast a marquee match-up like the Heat-Spurs, they expect that the star players will be on show. If, as happened on Thursday, the casual fan finds out that the Spurs are playing their reserve team, then those casual fans might decide not to tune in—maybe to switch over to Thursday Night Football instead. Not good for TNT, and not good for the NBA.

In Stern’s apology to the fans—whether you believe it to be sincere or not—he also brings up another key issue. The fans in Miami pay good money to see, not only their superstars, but also superstars from major teams coming into town—stars that they only get the chance to see once a year. More to the point, teams structure their ticket pricing according to the quality of the teams coming in. You pay more to see a Heat-Spurs game, than you would to go see a Heat-Raptors game. Would fans have paid good money months in advance knowing that instead of seeing Wade vs. Parker, or Duncan vs. Bosh, they would have to settle for Patty Mills and Matt Bonner? Probably not.

But let’s now get to why Stern was wrong to fine the Spurs.

Whether you disagree with Popovich’s decision, or think it was bad for the game, you can’t argue with one indisputable fact: He broke no official NBA rule. In-fact, as I mentioned before, not only Popovich, but other NBA coaches have rested their superstars previous to last Thursday, and without any repercussions. If Stern was serious about stopping the resting of superstar players, it would’ve been a lot fairer to put a rule in place without fining Popovich. Let Popovich’s decision be the line in the sand, so to speak, and move on from there.
 
 

More damning from a league perspective is the fact that deputy commissioner Adam Silver was quoted last season as saying, “The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams”. That position appears to completely contradict the one taken by Stern.

What’s more, the precedent that Stern has now set by fining the Spurs is a very dangerous one. Where does the league stop? Let’s say hypothetically that Popovich decided to play Duncan, Parker and Ginobli, but gave them only 5 minutes each of playing time. Does the league then fine the Spurs for not playing their superstars enough minutes? And what if the Spurs simply say that those players are injured? Is Stern going to overrule the Spurs’ medical staff? On what nights a coach decides to play his players, and for how many minutes, has always been HIS domain. Now it’s no longer so clear.

And then there’s the tanking issue.

At the end of last season the Golden State Warriors went into to full on tank-mode, suspiciously putting players on the injured-list in an attempt to lose games, and claim a higher lottery pick. Tanking isn’t pleasant, but as basketball fans we’ve become accustomed to seeing teams do it, and sometimes we even encourage our own teams to tank if their playoff chances have gone by the wayside. It’s entirely logical. However, it’s really hard to take Stern’s side on the Spurs issue, when the league has been almost silent on the issue of tanking. The fact is, that year in year out, teams close up shop in an attempt to improve their chances of snagging that rookie sensation. Where is Stern’s righteous indignation on that issue?

Stern’s punishment of the Spurs strikes many, and understandably so, as another example of a far too powerful commissioner, abusing his position. Add the Spurs fine to a list of abuses that include telling players what to wear, taking over teams, and stepping in to block a trade that changed the fortunes of 4 NBA franchises. Undoubtedly Stern has done many positive things during his tenure, but his actions last week were far from positive.

Getting involved in a team’s coaching decisions is a slippery slope, but Stern and the NBA seem intent to slide on down.

COMMENTS

Ian at 06 Dec 2012

Well written article Zach it was a good read. I like how you analyzed the several sides of this issue and demonstrated that the Spurs were wrongly punished punitively while not breaking any official rule.

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