Gregg Popovich sent his best players home, deciding they reached the end of the road before the trip was over.
For that, and for keeping it a secret, the San Antonio Spurs were fined $250,000 by the NBA on Friday.
Commissioner David Stern said the Spurs “did a disservice to the league and our fans” when they didn’t bring Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Danny Green to Miami for the final game of the six-game trip.
“The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case,” Stern said in a statement. “The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”
Teams are required to report as soon as they know a player will not travel because of injury.
The league’s statement said the Spurs were in violation of league policy reviewed with the board of governors in April 2010 against resting players in a manner “contrary to the best interests of the NBA.”
The Spurs didn’t comment on the penalty.
The issue of resting healthy players has been debated before, though usually at the end of the season, not a month into it. And the Spurs have been right at the center of it, Popovich using the rest strategy for an aging team that could use more time off than the NBA schedule often allows.
They even made a joke out of it last season, the box score listing “OLD” next to the 36-year-old Duncan’s name as the reason he didn’t play.
Stern wasn’t laughing Thursday.
He has a nearly $5 billion a year industry to protect and can’t like it when teams aren’t willing to put their best product on display in a marquee game televised by national TV partner TNT. Fans and viewers were excited about seeing the Spurs try to complete an unbeaten road trip against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the NBA champions, so there was an understandable letdown when they learned of the absences.
But there’s never a guarantee that any players are going to play, and Stern himself has previously made it clear he wasn’t going to impose rules to change that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers rested a healthy James for four straight games at the end of the 2009-10 regular season. Owners discussed the issue later that week at a meeting in New York, and Stern reported that there was “no conclusion reached, other than a number of teams thought it should be at the sole discretion of the team, the coach, the general manager, and I think it’s fair to say I agree with that, unless that discretion is abused.”
In the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts rested a healthy Peyton Manning even with an undefeated record late in the 2009 season, and the league eventually started trying to schedule as many division matchups as possible for the final two weeks of the season in an effort to make late-season games matter.
Popovich doesn’t wait until the end of the season to start resting players.
He was both praised and ripped for the way he navigated the lockout schedule last season, twice surrendering 11-game winning streaks by playing without his Big Three. Even those who didn’t like it conceded that a coach who had won four championships with what’s long been considered the NBA’s model organization probably knew what he was doing, and more defense came Thursday night.
“Popovich has done this before and he knows what’s best for his team,” former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT. “It’s his job to manage his players and do whatever he’d like. He’s thinking about the big picture.”
Another former player turned TNT analyst, Steve Kerr — who played for Popovich — also defended the franchise’s actions.
“If the NBA punishes the Spurs for sitting players, it opens up a huge can of worms,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is a serious legal challenge for the league.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers didn’t think the penalty would keep teams from resting players.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s a tough one. You’ve got to coach your team to win in the long run and you have to do whatever you need to do. If that’s sitting players, you sit players.”
That San Antonio — largely unloved in its championship days but suddenly a plucky underdog cheered by those who felt Stern overstepped his bounds — nearly won the game before the Heat rallied for a 105-100 victory didn’t sway the commissioner.
The league has an expectation that fans paying hundreds of dollars should get what they paid for. On Friday, the Phoenix Suns announced a “satisfaction guaranteed night” next Thursday against Dallas, offering fans a rebate if they didn’t enjoy their experience in what the team called a first-of-its-kind promotion in the league.
But nobody buying a ticket can be assured of seeing his favorite players. The Heat occasionally sat their superstars late last season for what the organization termed a “maintenance program,” and a late-season matchup against the Celtics included the following DNPs: James, Wade, Bosh and Boston’s Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.
Then there are the neutral-site preseason games the league stages in markets where fans rarely get to see the NBA live. Signs outside the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. before a Celtics-Knicks matchup in October featured pictures of Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, although neither played despite being healthy.
With Stern reaching in now, does he reach that far? Or are there be a separate set of guidelines depending on the calendar?
The league wouldn’t clear that up, not commenting beyond its statement. The Spurs were unavailable Friday after the long trip.