I understand the need to keep key players fresh and have argued that relegating starters to the bench during blowout victories constitutes common sense. But failing to play top players in a game that pits two of the NBA's best teams is almost tragic. The implication behind Pop's behavior is this: The Spurs' sole goal is to win a championship, and if keeping his best players out of a regular-season match-up helps achieve that goal then it is justified. That reasoning suggests regular-season games are essentially meaningless, that there's nothing to be gained from the sheer joy of playing one of the NBA's best teams in a highly anticipated match-up.
The pervasive appeal of this logic should not come as a surprise. We live in a winner-take-all sports culture where great athletes from Dan Marino to Karl Malone are more likely to be mocked for never winning a championship than celebrated for their unreal skills and accomplishments. Regular-season greatness means nothing. Anything less than a title means you're a loser. And in this type of world, a regular-season game featuring Tim Duncan and LeBron James, two of the top five players of the post-Jordan era, only has meaning in the context of playoff-seeding implications and the effects on championship aspirations.
But there's a dangerous precedent being set. 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? I don't know if Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli had any say in whether or not they would play against the Heat, but I'd like to believe they wanted to be on the court. That's the type of competitive fire fans want to see in professional athletes. It's one of the reasons so many fans pine for the days of Bird and Jordan, days when superstars gave everything they had on a nightly basis.
The purpose of professional sports is about more than just winning championships. It's about playing to win every night and relishing the opportunity to test oneself against good competition, whenever such an opportunity arises. Sports culture today is too heavily tied to the notion that winning a championship is the only way for a player to validate his or her career. The job of NBA coaches and players is not just "to win titles," as Jake Simpson argued in his Atlantic piece defending Pop's decision. It's to try and win every game on the schedule and to entertain paying fans in the process.
To their credit, the Spurs players play exceptionally hard every time they hit the floor. It would have been nice if Popovich had given them the chance to display such effort against the Heat, another team that lays it out on the line night after night. LeBron James has averaged 37.3 minutes-per-game this season. He probably could have used some rest on Thursday night, but credit Heat Coach Erik Spolestra for playing his starters as if the season rode on the outcome.
If Popovich was seriously concerned about giving key players rest during the Spur's long road trip, he could have played them minimal minutes against the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic, two sorry teams that San Antonio's back-ups could have handled with ease. This benching seemed like a deliberate thumb in the eye of Commissioner David Stern. It's understandable that winning an NBA championship is Popovich's primary goal, but he's more than capable of pursuing it without keeping his best players out of marquee regular season match-ups. Hopefully Popovich will discontinue this practice if for no other reason than fans, the people whose attention and money makes the NBA go, deserve a chance to watch the game's best compete when the schedule calls for it.