The NBA Should Encourage Savvy Strategy Not Fine It

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21: Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs drives to the basket against Brandon Bass #30 of the Boston Celtics during the game at TD Garden on November 21, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Last night the San Antonio Spurs faced their fourth game in five nights on the road in Miami. Beating Miami on the road is hard. Beating Miami on the road on short rest is extremely hard. And a team like the Spurs whose key players are on the older side needs to think about conserving energy for the long haul. So Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent four of his starters home even though two other key rotation players were already injured, thus incurring the wrath of NBA Commissioner David Stern who promised “substantial sanctions” for Popvich’s effort to manage his players’ time.

This is foolish.

For starters, you’re never going to be able to draw a bright-line rule here that works. All coaches make discretionary decisions about who plays how many minutes. That’s the essence of coaching. The league office can’t sit over the shoulder of every team and second guess all their personnel decisions. In baseball it’s simply expected that you need to think about the strain you’re putting on your pitchers’ arms over the long haul and that even position players are often going to need a break. The dynamics of basketball are different, but the strategic considerations Popovich is responding to are pretty clear.

Stern’s business concern is also clear. The NBA is a league of stars and people want to see the stars play. I get it.

But in the longer run, the NBA should be encouraging well-managed franchises. And basically everyone agrees that over the long term the Spurs are just about the best-managed franchise in the association. Exactly what the league needs is for smart management practices to diffuse so that teams can find success in the less-obvious markets. Several San Antonio innovations—realizing there are quality backcourt players in Europe, realizing you can use Spain’s ACB as a development league—have spread pretty widely now. Other ideas like having a team-owned D-League affiliate located in a nearby media market are smart and a few other temas are following along. It’s possible that Popovich’s rest days idea is strategically unsound. But it’s also possible that once again the Spurs know what they’re doing, and strategic rest days will let veteran stars have longer careers and by reducing injury ultimately maximize the number of days players show up for work. Let them try!

Good ideas are always in short supply, and it’s foolish to stifle innovation over what amounts to a fit of pique. Suppose Popovich had just pretended Tim Duncan’s knees were hurt and then made him travel with the team to Miami but didn’t have him play. Would we even be having this discussion? Strategy is a legitimate part of the game, and Stern should let teams try to figure it out.