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Friday, November 30, 2012

"Resting" Healthy Players is not a Good Trend

The San Antonio Spurs faced the Miami Heat on Thursday night in a possible NBA Finals preview but fans who purchased tickets for this eagerly anticipated matchup did not get to see Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili play against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich elected to send his three stars (plus Danny Green, who started in each of the first 16 games of the season) home even though they are all healthy. The undermanned Spurs fiercely battled the Heat before falling 105-100 but that is not the point; Hall of Fame NFL Coach John Madden put it best after the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin declined to rest his players in a so-called "meaningless" game: "I think it is one of the best things that has happened to the NFL in the last 10 years and I don't know if they all know it but they should be very grateful to you and your team. We were getting too much of that 'Well, they're going to rest their players because they don't need it.' That's not sports and that's not competition. Anyway, I'm a little emotional about it but I was so damn proud of what you guys did. It is something that we all ought to thank you for because, believe me, the NFL needed that. Congratulations."

Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN commentator and former NBA head coach, noted that it is only within the past 10 years or so that NBA teams have become so focused on resting healthy players and limiting their minutes. Players used to take pride in playing every game and only sitting out if it is absolutely necessary; Michael Jordan played all 82 games in each season of the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat even though many of those games were "meaningless." That mentality is largely extinct now with the exception of a few old school players--most notably Kobe Bryant.

NBA Commissioner David Stern apologized to all NBA fans for the Spurs' actions and declared that "substantial sanctions will be forthcoming." It is not clear exactly what Commissioner Stern can do, though, because there is not a formal rule pertaining to resting players and because several teams (including the Spurs) have rested players late in the regular season without being punished. The difference this time is that the Spurs blatantly tanked a game--regardless of the close final score, the reality is that the Spurs had little chance to beat the Heat in Miami without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili--while depriving Miami fans of their only opportunity to watch the Spurs' Big Three in person this season. Perhaps the Heat should be required to issue refunds to all of Thursday's ticket buyers and then the Spurs should be required to fully reimburse the Heat in addition to paying a fine to the league for violating the spirit of the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 PM

26 comments

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26 Comments:

At Friday, November 30, 2012 5:18:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Whether you agree with Pop or not, this doesn't diminish at all how great of a coach he is. Pop's job is to win bring home a championship to SA, not cater to the Miami fans. Sure, it might be bad for a few fans at last night's game, even though Duncan/Ginobili/Parker, while all really good players, aren't exactly huge draws individually, but maybe collectively.

I don't understand why they wouldn't play, even 10-12 minutes, but it's not my team, it's my Pop's team, and he doesn't answer to me or anyone else other than his boss.

The nba needs to set up rules in place instead issuing threats after the fact. It'd probably be good that they do, and then the team gets penalized in some way. But, teams should be able to do runs their teams their way without interference for the league office, but there could be consequences for certain actions. This is nothing new, it's been going on for years/decades. If Stern is so worried about it, why wait this long and after it happens again, for the 100+ time?

 
At Friday, November 30, 2012 5:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree that's it's not competitive, the NBA season is a marathon. Sometimes you need to pace yourself.
Perhaps incidents like this should make the NBA think about why they have back to backs which causes coaches to want to save their stars from unnecessary stress and possible injury.

Great site by the way, I really like reading your work.

 
At Friday, November 30, 2012 6:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree that Pop's move is against the integrity of the game. The NBA is screwing with the integrity of the game by putting focus on the stars and showmanship instead of good team basketball. The Spurs are just doing what is best for their team, not the league's pocketbook.

 
At Friday, November 30, 2012 10:07:00 PM, Anonymous JF said...

David,
Honestly i cannot logically understand why some people in the media are defending the Spurs. Dont they know that people are playing all this money to see these players?

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 12:21:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

This is first a scheduling problem - the spurs were playing their 4th game in 5 nights, and second a greediness problem: 82 games is just too much.

Players are much more aware today of the health hazards of playing so many games and they and they're coaches are correct to try and rest themselves as much as they can until the actual season begins: the playoffs. Phil Jackson used to do this a lot, though in a different way: by playing his second unit many more minutes than other coaches would. Also note that the Bulls had a lot of injuries and in some years got their best players back only at the end of the season.
MJ is of course an exception - he really was a physical freak of nature, just like Lebron.

This is the fault of the league and the Spurs and other teams are absolutely correct in atempting to manage the minutes of an aging roster. Would it be better for Tim to suffer an injury, which is likely with the fatigue of such a schedule? Would that please Stern more?

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 4:41:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

I never suggested that this incident diminishes Popovich's greatness as a coach.

While it is true that Popovich's job is to win and not "cater to the Miami fans," a larger part of his job is to act in the overall best interest of the league. As Commissioner Stern's statement indicated, the problem here is not just that Popovich rested four players but that he did so without notifying the league, the Heat or the media in advance. Think about what kind of precedent this could set in terms of tanking games, colluding with gamblers and all kinds of other unsavory activities. I am not saying that Popovich even thought of doing any of those unsavory things but Commissioner Stern is correct that this has to be nipped in the bud before something very bad happens.

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 4:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Welcome to 20 Second Timeout and I am glad that you enjoy my work.

It is true that teams and players sometimes need to pace themselves but Parker and Green are not old players. Why should they need to rest one month into the season? As I mentioned in my previous comment, the total context in which Popovich made this move forced the NBA to respond swiftly and strongly.

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 4:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

All sports and entertainment businesses market stars; the NBA is no better or no worse than anyone else in that regard.

As explained in my previous comments and in the article itself, what Popovich did is wrong because of the total context of the situation; he sent home three All-Star caliber players plus a fourth starter without providing any real notice that those four healthy players would not play. That is just a bad precedent on many levels. Commissioner Stern carefully worded his statement to avoid painting himself into a corner regarding teams that rest players late in the season and/or teams that provide sufficient notice before resting players. As I indicated, I would prefer that healthy players not rest at all but there is no realistic way for the NBA to force teams to do that. I really like John Madden's philosophy and I applaud Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin for coaching like every game matters. I also applaud players like Kobe Bryant, Andre Miller and Derek Fisher for taking great pride in not missing games.

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 5:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JF:

I agree with you and I cannot speak for/defend what other media members say.

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 5:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

In earlier eras the NBA had even more onerous scheduling and the teams traveled by commercial planes--or even by trains if you go back far enough--yet healthy players (and even many unhealthy ones) rarely if ever sat out games.

While Phil Jackson certainly tried to develop his second unit and instill those players with confidence by leaving them on the court even in critical moments (perhaps most famously in the 1992 Finals when Pippen and four reserves mounted a big comeback), his starters generally logged heavy minutes and he did not make a habit of resting healthy players. Pippen missed some games during the second three-peat because of foot surgery but I cannot recall Pippen ever being kept out of the lineup when healthy.

If teams/players have complaints about the scheduling then this should have been handled during the collective bargaining process. While the Spurs and all teams have the right to manage their minutes, no team has the right to simply sit four healthy starters with no warning and it is particularly egregious to do so in an early season game during San Antonio's only trip to Miami. The NBA fans in the arena and the fans watching on TV were deprived of a compelling matchup; Popovich can manage his team's minutes just as effectively without taking such a drastic measure and I think that the NBA's steep fine will persuade him and others of the value of taking a different approach to managing minutes.

 
At Saturday, December 01, 2012 10:46:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

I don't think we need any other issues for the CBA talks. We'd still be in a lockout. Everyone wants as much money as possible; thus, these 4 games in 5 nights stuff has to happen.

The main problem is why all the uproar now by Stern, retroactively? That's not good. He did good to say something before the game, but he should never had said anything to begin with. Very few, if any, fans in miami were really psyched to see these spurs players. Teams tanking half the season is much worse than this, but yet nothing has even been said about that. Instead, Stern wants to worry about a few players missing their 4th game in 5 nights to rest up, ridiculous.

While you can respect some of these coaches and players for playing/coaching hard always, as I do, I respect Pop for doing what he did, and not caring what Stern thinks. He's always been about winning the marathon, not the sprint. Rivers rested his players quite a bit the last few years as well so they were healthy for the playoffs while giving up a few spots in the seedings, and it worked. Even though none of the 4 players may have been hurt, this is when you get hurt, when you're really tired/travelling all over the place, and pushing your body to the max. Duncan/Ginobili are older, so makes sense for them, and ginobili is always hurt.

I don't like what Pop did, but then I have no idea what it is to coach an NBA team, and he sure knows what he's doing, but Stern shouldn't just make up something like this on the spot.

 
At Sunday, December 02, 2012 4:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Commissioner Stern did not "make something up on the spot." His statement accompanying the $250,000 fine clearly explained that the problem is not just that the Spurs rested healthy players but that the Spurs did so without providing any notice to the league, the media or the Heat. There are serious competition issues involved here, as I indicated in the article and in my comments.

I have never bought the argument that so and so got away with crime X therefore crime Y should not be prosecuted. Tanking is difficult to prove/combat but one of the ways to do so is to strongly discourage teams from resting healthy players.

If the owners, coaches and/or players do not like the current scheduling format then that is an issue that should be negotiated as opposed to coaches simply randomly benching healthy players without notice.

 
At Sunday, December 02, 2012 5:46:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

http://tinyurl.com/csz25xs

Woz's article pulls no punches.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 4:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Soccer is the world's most famous sport and it moves as much (if not more) money than the NBA or the NFL. And it has much more followers around the world than either league. Benching healthy players in soccer is the most normal thing there is, be it a role player or a superstar. Be it in a national league game or in a champions league game (most important clubs competition in soccer). Even in the world cup it's perfectly normal. I love basketball and the NBA but to me, the comissioner's decision or even the fact that Pop should have warned the league is beyond ridiculous. And i'm a lakers fan so no love for the spurs from me :D
Nuno Rechena (your reader from Portugal)

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 5:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Soccer is also arguably the most corrupt sport in the world and match fixing is commonplace:

Influenced Outcomes: ESPN The Mag story details ongoing corruption in soccer leagues

Robert Kraft is perhaps the most respected owner in the NFL. He has stated that he would not buy a European soccer team because of the sport's broken business model:

"Manchester City won the championship this year and I hear they're going to lose $156 million. I would rather give that money to charity if I had it. I want every business to stand on its own."

With all due respect, the last thing that the NBA should do is model itself after soccer.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 6:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a big difference between basketball and football (an European here so I refuse to call it soccer). It is possible to play a basketball game every two days but it is very difficult to play a two football games every week for 10 months straight.

Yes, basketball is a faster game, but it is only 48 minutes, of which most players only play 30-35, with a lot of breaks. Football is 2x45 minutes with no breaks, only three substitutions and on a much bigger field.

The 82 games season is quite a marathon, but players seem to be able to handle it. In contrast, no football player would be able to play 80-85 games (which is the maximum possible for top players when you count internationals) over 10 months without breaking down physically, and that's not because football player are worse athletes.

It's worth remembering that back in the days when the calendar was nowhere near as densely packed and the game significantly slower and less physical, rotating and resting players was unheard of. It only because a common practice in the last 20 years with the commercialization of the sport.

Which reminds me - I do not agree with the opinion that the NBA has nothing to learn from European football. There is another big difference between football around the world and the NBA (and professional leagues in North America in general) and it is the the latter has been a corporate entry from its very inception and has never served any other purpose than to provide entertainment and make money. European football has moved in that direction too but for most of its history it was and for many people it still is a lot more than that - it's not just a game but a social phenomenon (with a lot of politics and social struggle mixed in in many places), and the game itself is in the view of many an art form.

The kind of bond between fans and clubs that exists in Europe and South America is nowhere to be found in North America. And the football as an art form philosophy is non-existent too.

For the NBA, it's all about providing entertainment, advertising, TV money and selling merchandise, for the fans it's about going to the fridge for the next beer when they watch on TV and much worse when they're watching live - it never ceases to amaze me how when I go to an NBA game disturbingly large numbers of people spend more time buying and eating fast food than the do actually watching the game.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 6:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe you misunderstood me. I'm really not talking about modeling after soccer. I'm saying that, in spit of benching players being normal in soccer, it still is the most liked sport in the world and soccer fans see it as being totally normal because the seasons are long and sometimes it's necessary. Of course soccer is a lot worse when it comes to money. The reason manchester city won and still lost all that money is because they are owned by a very rich man who wants to win quickly and doesn't mind loosing money to do it. There are teams making lots of money in soccer. Still, i do think that you are right regarding somethings about soccer and there are plenty of things soccer could lear from the NBA or the NFL, in order to stop things like manchester city, where money does buy a title. About corruption...well, i do believe that it is a comon thing in all sports and i don't think it doesn't exist in the NBA. I do think that DAvid Stern tries to downplay it but it exists. As there are plenty of things wrong with your college system and i won't even get into the nfl and substance abuse. No need do be so agressive towards soccer. I was not defending soccer structure but how wrong it is for a comissioner to decide that a coach can't use the players he wants, when he wants and how he wants. It just doesn't make any sense to me. As it doesn't make any sense for a team to be controlled by the league and to not allow a transfer for basketball reasons ;)
Nuno Rechena

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 7:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing. The hack-a-Insert name of bad ft shooter is more damaging to the game than what Pop did. It's ridiculous that you can do that. It makes games just plain boring.
Nuno Rechena

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

I hear what you're saying, and I think that tanking games is a real problem that must be eradicated. At the same time, where does one draw the line?

If these 4 guys suited up but did not play a minute, I assume that would also not have been acceptable in your book? What if they had played 10 minutes each? 15? 20?

It's hard to set a bright-line rule that is clear and easy to follow regarding forcing a team to compete for every game, and I think it's equally hard to enforce a more subjective rule.

Following the same concept - couldn't it be argued that a coach's decision to play rookies heavy minutes in the interest of developing them for the future ALSO sacrifices the present for the future (although in this case, with respect to seasons rather than games)? Should coaches be required to play the players who are the best AT THAT TIME, rather than those who need the floor time to eventually become the best?

In my book, as long as no corruption/betting is involved, I think it's safer to stay out of these affairs. IMO, the coaches know what's best for their own team.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 2:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It disagree with your suggestion that American fans are not as passionate about their NBA, NFL or MLB teams as European and South American fans are about their soccer teams.

The type of fan passion displayed by soccer fans also has a downside: racist chants, rioting and even murders.

I also disagree with your suggestion that the soccer business is less motivated by "entertainment, advertising, TV money and selling merchandise" than American sports leagues are.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 2:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I disagree with the notion that resting healthy players is "necessary" and if you are correct that this is commonplace in soccer then it is certainly easy to see how this contributes to the endemic culture of corruption in that sport.

Corruption likely exists to some degree in virtually all human endeavors but there is good reason to believe that soccer is more corrupt than most sports.

As for your thinly veiled reference to the aborted Chris Paul trade, I agree with you and I wrote an article criticizing Commissioner Stern for taking that action:

Commissioner Stern Should Not Have Voided the Chris Paul Trade

Intentional fouling is not allowed in the final two minutes of the game. I am not convinced of the strategic value of this tactic; even if the hacked player only makes half of his free throws that works out to one point per possession (without even considering possible offensive rebounds) plus the slower pace of the game enables the hacked player's team to set up their half court defense, thus making it more difficult for the hacking team to score. Intentional fouling is hardly a widespread tactic, though, and since you believe that coaches should have total autonomy how can you complain about this? Free throw shooting is an important basketball skill and if a coach thinks that he can improve his team's chances by fouling a poor free throw shooter then he has the right to do this. I agree with you that it is not fun to watch--and I will emphasize again that I don't think that the hacking tactic is strategically sound in many cases--but if we want to talk about things that are not fun to watch then let's mention flopping, soccer's "great" gift to the NBA. Fouling a poor free throw shooter is a legitimate tactic but flopping with little or no contact is a blatant attempt to cheat.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 2:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I mentioned in my article that it is difficult to, as you put it, "draw the line" but in this case the Spurs made things very easy: "resting" four healthy players early in the season with no notice--including two players who are not even old by any reasonable definition--clearly makes a mockery of the sport.

Subsequent incidents will be handled on a case by case basis but I think that a $250,000 fine will serve as a good deterrent against blatant violations.

It should be obvious that there is a difference between a late season game in which a team that is out of the playoff hunt features its young players and an early season game between two potential NBA Finalists.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 6:12:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Of course there is the great what if? What if the Spurs had won? Would Stern still have been justified in his preemptive "sanctions"?

I was disappointed that Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green did not play, but I still watched the game. It was probably the best game I've seen all season thus far in terms of how competitive and close it was.

I understand both sides of the argument, and can't fault either side in their overall stance. I do think that Pop was trying to make a statement regarding the Spurs difficult schedule heading into the game juxtaposed with how much time Miami got off to rest. His action to send them home, along with Green and Parker, was definitely a middle-finger to Stern.

At the same time, Stern overreacted to the middle finger and wanted to do everything in his power to shove it back in Pop's face. But, he almost looked the fool as SA's B team (which, is made up of some very good players, despite the fact the average fan has probably never heard of any of them...Splitter was an ACB MVP, De Colo led the ACB in assists, Gary Neal is an accomplished in Euro League as is Patty Mills, and Diaw began the season as the team's starting forward) nearly won the game.

The Spurs are the model organization in terms of having their teams, year after year, prepared and ready to play every game. It is rare to see a SA team blown out. The standings reflect this as the Spurs have won 50 games in every Tim Duncan season, save the lockout shortened 99 campaign.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 9:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan Ikeda:

Who won the game is beside the point. What Popovich did sets a bad precedent and Commissioner Stern acted quickly and decisively to strongly discourage other teams from acting in a similar fashion.

The Spurs are a model organization in many ways and that is all the more reason that both the NBA and the Spurs themselves must make sure that the Spurs do things the right way.

If owners, coaches and/or players are concerned about the schedule then that issue should be taken care of in the offseason. I am sure that if all sides are willing to receive less money (from TV deals, corporate sponsorships, etc.) then the league can play fewer games and/or schedule the games further apart. Until that happens, everyone who benefits financially from participating in the NBA must ensure the integrity of the operation, which means--among other things--that healthy players should play.

 
At Monday, December 03, 2012 11:27:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

And if Stern is so concerned with what Pop did, then he needs to make a rule about beforehand, not retroactively, and he shouldn't have been letting this stuff go on year after year.

The margin of victory is important, since you're bringing up how potentially corrupt Pop's move was by not letting everyone know with enough notice beforehand. While he rested 4 starters, but yet still tried to win the game, and nearly did, then that should be evidence enough as he didn't do it to make a quick buck.

 
At Tuesday, December 04, 2012 2:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

In his statement explaining the fine, Commissioner Stern cited a pre-existing rule so you are incorrect to suggest that Stern "retroactively" created a rule.

The margin of victory is completely irrelevant and it is important to note that I never suggested that Coach Popovich is corrupt. The point is that if a team can rest key healthy players without advance notice this opens the door for corruption; for instance, say that a P.R. guy for a team tells a friend, "Hey, check this out--my team is going to rest their top three players tonight. Isn't that a trip?" The P.R. guy may not even be corrupt; he many just be talking to his friend--but what if his friend happens to be a gambler? Then that person has an edge. This could be even more problematic if someone starts paying a team insider for such information. That is why the NFL fines teams for issuing incomplete or inaccurate injury reports, which is just a variation of resting healthy players. No professional sports league can permit a team to do what the Spurs did. It is true that such situations have to be handled on a case by case basis but this particular case was obvious and egregious, which is why Commissioner Stern reacted so swiftly and so harshly.

 

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