It’s been just over a month since San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich decided, mere hours before a marquee nationally televised matchup with the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, to send four of his top five players back to Texas so that they could rest up after a long road trip rather than suit up to entertain TNT-watching audiences. You remember what happened next: David Stern got super mad, the Spurs reserves played great and would’ve won if not for Jesus Shuttlesworth, we all got an awesome game to watch with (in all likelihood) way more interest than there would’ve been previously, and yet still the commish slapped the Spurs with an unprecedented $250,000 fine for doing “a disservice to the league and our fans.” (It was a whole big thing.)
Now, you might be asking yourself: “Dan, we’re on the brink of a new year. Why are you bringing up the past? The future, that’s what counts, you history-obsessed dork.” To which I say: Hey, take it easy. We’re all friends here.
OK, now that we’ve established that, let’s take a look at the schedule. San Antonio played on Sunday, taking care of the Dallas Mavericks for the second time in a week, and welcome the Brooklyn Nets — about whose coaching situation Pop has some thoughts — to the AT&T Center on Monday night. After an off day Tuesday, the Spurs take on the Milwaukee Bucks on New Year’s Day and then head to Manhattan for a matchup with the New York Knicks on Thursday. By my reckoning, that’s four games in five nights, with the final game coming in a high-profile contest against an Eastern Conference power.
I mean … he wouldn’t do it again, would he?
Well, he seems like he might be thinking about it. Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News that he hasn’t heard from the league office on the matter of when it’s acceptable for a coach to give his players a day off since he received his hefty fine, and that “he still has no idea how the NBA would like him to handle the situation when it arises again.”
“I don’t know what the guidelines are,” Popovich said before the Spurs’ 111-86 victory at Dallas on Sunday. “I don’t know how you plan. I’m just going to do what I’ve been doing for 16, 17 years.
“I’m mostly concerned with the health and safety of my players, especially the ones who are a little bit older. When they need rest, I’m going to give it to them.”
Like, for example, at the end of a tough week that’s featured four games in five nights?
“If you’re playing four games in five nights and you need to rest somebody, I think that’s a call that I’ll make if I need to do that,” Popovich told McDonald. “I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again, I’m sure.”
Well, OK, then.
Sounds like $250,000 might not be an effective deterrent to a coach with near-unimpeachable job security doing what he thinks is best for a team that he expects to be playing deep into the summer. I wonder if Commissioner Stern will ring in the new year by deciding to make it an even half-million next time, should it come to that. Seems like savoring your own unchecked power would be at least as delicious and satisfying as a champagne toast sipped as everyone hammers home an off-key rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” America’s favorite Scottish folk poem.
Now, this could be much ado about nothing. In the Spurs’ previous four games — all wins, all huge offensive displays, including three blowouts — no individual San Antonio player has had to bear an especially heavy load, with only Tony Parker (32.4) averaging more than 30 minutes per contest. The other three Spurs who sat against Miami — Tim Duncan, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili — have all had pretty well-managed minutes over the past week, with Duncan getting just over 28 minutes per night and both Green and Ginobili playing right around one half of basketball in each game. Plus, unlike the game against the Heat, the Spurs will have top small forwards Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson not only back from injury and available, but also potentially fresh after playing less than 27 minutes a night over the past week. (This would not seem to bode well for Knicks leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who’s missed two games and is still working his way back after hyperextending his left knee in a Christmas Day loss to the Lakers.)
Obviously, a lot can change depending on how the Monday night affair against the Nets goes, if anyone’s nagging injuries or aging limbs feel a bit of a twinge after traveling, or if someone pulls up against the Bucks. But on balance, the Spurs roster looks to be a bit healthier, fuller and better prepared to have all hands on deck heading into Thursday night’s rematch with the Knicks, who took the Spurs down in San Antonio earlier this season. Still, though, if San Antonio has to lean on its vets a little heavier than expected over the next couple of games, or maybe goes to overtime against either the Nets or the Bucks … couldn’t you see it happening again?
Doesn’t deciding to bench his old stars — maybe not send them home on a plane or anything, but just sit the vets down instead of lining them up against the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks, even though the last time he did so he caught a quarter-million-dollar rip for it — seem like exactly the kind of thing Pop would do in the spirit of reaffirming for all the world that nobody’s going to tell him how to run his team except, potentially, owner Peter Holt? I’ll be honest: I’d kind of love to see him do it, just to see what would happen next. Now, am I saying that because I’m a Knicks fan? Who can say, really?
The point remains: We could be mere days away from the type of showdown that sends ripples throughout the league, between two men of indomitable will, looking to see which one will blink first. It’s like Bird and ‘Nique, only with more craggly old white faces.