Basketball is about more than just winning titles, and the regular season should be taken seriously.
San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich is a master tactician and peerless evaluator of talent. But basketball fans that enjoys watching the NBA's best compete should be disappointed by his decision to hold several key Spurs starters out of a marquee match-up with the Miami Heat, a decision that resulted in a $250,000 fine for the franchise. They should also be disappointed that so many sportswriters defended the decision.
By benching Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green—let's call this controversy Benchgate—Popovich became complicit in a sad, emerging reality in the NBA: that the regular season just doesn't matter very much to elite players and coaches. Stern is right to fight back against that trend. Fans deserve to see exciting, well-contested basketball games throughout the NBA season.
There was a time not long ago when the sport's best took every game seriously, in large part because of the fans. Larry Bird, that old-school stalwart who took tremendous pride in playing the game the right way, didn't seek nights off for the sake of some extra rest. In an interview with ESPN's Bill Simmons, he described the life of an NBA player this way:
This is your job. And a lot of people depend on whether you win or lose. You know we got this building, we got all these workers, they got to feed their families, and you go out there and mess around and you don't put a full effort into it every night, not only does your team suffer but everyone suffers from that.
A bit sentimental? Perhaps. But Bird's quote contains a lot of truth. Playing basketball is the job of an NBA player, and fans assume players will show up for each of the regular season's 82 games, not just the ones in which they feel like competing.
In the documentary Michael Jordan to the Max, which examines Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls, there's a scene in which journalist Bob Greene insinuates that Jordan made a concerted effort to compete every night, because he knew that there was someone in the stands "who had never seen him before, who would never see him again, and this would be the one Michael Jordan moment they ever had and he would say he was playing for those people there." In that same scene, Jordan's coach Phil Jackson tells a story about a road trip during which Jordan suffered severe back spasms. In spite of the pain, he went out and scored 40 points in one game, because according to Jackson he "wanted everybody to see his special skill, and he didn't want people who loved basketball not to have that opportunity."
If Michael Jordan, often seen as the cartoonish embodiment of sports' win-at-all-costs mentality, didn't practice strategic benching, how can we think it's OK that Popovich did?
Of course, those quotes may seem like a bit of mythmaking by two men who clearly have a special affinity, and in Jackson's case a close professional relationship, for Jordan. Skeptics will scoff at the notion that Jordan's maniacal competitiveness stemmed from a desire to give casual fans a show. But note that even in his later years, Jordan rarely took a day off. In his last three seasons with the Chicago Bulls, he played in all 82 regular-season games. He didn't have to, and there's no question that Jordan could have used some extra rest during those seasons: In the 1998 playoffs a fatigued Bulls team nearly lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Indiana Pacers. But Jordan wasn't the type of player to look for a night off.
The Spurs coach rationalized his decision by pointing out that the team's recent schedule put the players through the grinder by requiring them to compete in 11 road games in a month's time. The veteran players and Green needed to rest their aching bodies. Last year, the aging Spurs looked poised to capture the franchise's fifth NBA championship before they hit a wall and lost four straight playoff games to the young Oklahoma City Thunder. To try to ensure that the team doesn't suffer a similar fate this spring, when San Antonio will presumably compete for the title once again, Popovich apparently plans to occasionally rest his starters during the season, a tactic he's used in the past.