Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s honey badger, and for that we can all be thankful. At the beginning of the season, Popovich examined the schedule and circled last night’s game in Miami. He planned to rest his aging core as he’d strategically done over the course of the last few years. Spurs media knew the plan two weeks ago. The Spurs’ coach told his aging trio (Duncan, Ginobili and Parker) and his young sweet-shooting wing Danny Green to head back to San Antonio one night early, avoiding the last game on their six-game road trip, which just happened to be a TNT special, Thursday night marquee match-up.
What went through commissioner/mafia don David Stern’s addled mind? Perhaps something like this: “David Stern will have something to say about this! David Stern has been violated! David Stern will get his retribution! David Stern is the King!” (Mercifully, for one more year only).
Never mind that it was the their 4th game in 5 nights (which will continue to be a contentious thorn in the schedule-makers side. Never mind that the 82-game regular season is too long, and dilutes the level of play with constant injuries and ridiculous stretches. Never mind that Popovich has done this very same thing (resting his best players at the end of a long road trip in the 2nd game of a back-t0-back) several times in the past several years. He did it against Miami, in a game David Stern wanted everyone to see.
Stern has decided it will cost San Antonio an absurd $250,000 even though there is no technical rule against doing what he did. John Hollinger, writing for ESPN, explains that Stern may have shrugged his shoulders had Pop done this the previous night against Orlando. He also pushes the idea that countless NBA writers/commentators and fans have been saying for years: the schedule is broken and desperately needs fixing. If the NBA is going to take such dramatic action against this coaching decision, how about dealing with the schedule by allowing for one day of rest before these big national TV games?
Let’s give Popovich some serious praise for these reasons:
1) He took it to Stern, who needs more coaches and GM’s to stand up to him, in spite of his condescending and threatening attitude toward most of them.
2) He took it to the Heat and their party-loving fans, diminishing much of the potential motivation LeBron, Wade and company might have mustered coming into this match-up (the Heat nearly lost this game, having to grind out a last-minute win after being down 7 with 3 minutes left.)
3) Erik Spoelstra looked as enraged as I’ve ever seen him, as this game was a clear sign he has very little ability to motivate his best players.
4) Danny Green will likely realize just how important he is to this team’s present and future as a result of his inclusion with Duncan, Ginobili and Parker as guys deemed important enough to rest and who will be relied upon for the long-term.
5) Tiago Splitter, Nando de Colo, and Gary Neal all stepped up and had great moments for the Spurs. This will pay serious dividends for the Spurs throughout the season, especially for de Colo, who was given 34 minutes and came through with 15 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. de Colo, whose averages 10.8 min/game on the season, has to be feeling good.
6) Understanding the importance of rest in staying healthy. The NBA season is a serious threat to the health of it’s older players, that is everyone over the age of about 30. Henry Abbott, at TrueHoop, has a great article on the danger of playing these type of 4-in-5 night stretches on the health of NBA players.
The system Popovich and Duncan have established over the entirety of his tenure deserves to be recognized. Like Belichick with the Patriots, Popovich and Duncan have the respect of every Spur, in large part because the full respect builds chemistry and both Pop and Duncan’s attitude trickles down from the top. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have always embraced Popovich’s style of ferocity and determination. Duncan and Pop. The Chicago Bulls do that today. Noah and Thibs. The Celtics did that from 2007-2010. KG and Doc. Defense is selfless and dependent on complete buy-in and trust from every player on the floor. And offenses run best when everyone contributes and the ball moves. It’s pretty simple. Few teams have such strong defensive-minded leaders, both coaching and establishing it on the court.
If David Stern had even a smidgen of foresight or a modicum of appreciation for what makes basketball the greatest game in the world, he would overlook his ego and the TV ratings, and might step back and appreciate the fact that Popovich is still around. He has led the Spurs since 1996, and has given us a team that usually rises above a mere collection of individual stars (Miami, the super-Lakers). It’s not always the most aesthetically pleasing basketball, and San Antonio is about as small a market as there is in the NBA, but their team, built through the draft with a bit of luck (Duncan was the top lottery pick the Celtics never got), and excellent international scouting (Parker was a first rounder, Ginobili was a 2nd rounder). R.C. Buford and Popovich have brought in the right players, and Duncan has always led them in the right away. Despite their age, the Spurs will continue to mess with the likes of more athletic, promote-able teams like OKC and the Lakers for at least another year or two. They’ll continue to get into other team’s heads.
Why? Because the honey badger never has and never will give a sh*t!