An unsympathetic Popovich continues to sternly defend his hugely successful player-management strategies, while Stern promises to bring the hammer to the Spurs.
When Popovich decided to sit four presumably healthy starters (power forward Tim Duncan, point guard Tony Parker, shooting guard Manu Ginobili, and small forward Danny Green) in a nationally-televised primetime matchup in November, NBA Commissioner David Stern determined that the four-time championship coach’s actions were unacceptable.
Both men are trying to protect their interests but who’s right and who’s out of bounds in this game-inside-the-game?
With TV Dollars at Stake, the NBA Means Business vs. the Spurs
The NBA Commissioner is naturally upset when he learns hours before tipoff that Popovich is going to sit his best players in a game in November—a primetime, nationally televised game. The matchup on TNT featured the team with the most wins in the West vs. the team with the most wins in the East (Miami Heat).
Turner Sports—a subsidiary of Time Warner—has always been loyal to the NBA, since Turner Broadcasting founder Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Hawks in 1977.
Turner Sports currently shares NBA broadcasting rights with ESPN/ABC, both networks spending hundreds of millions of dollars for the opportunity to earn huge profits while promoting the National Basketball Association.
The Turner Sports contract with the NBA creates the longest partnership the league has held with any broadcasting company. Turner Sports also operates NBA TV.
The NBA and Turner Sports lost a heap of money during last year’s lockout-shortened season, and the absence of All-Stars like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker doesn’t help the league or its business partners promote the game or recoup their investment.
The Spurs have one of the most prestigious franchises in the NBA with four championships, but they seem unconcerned about being telegenic and they don’t play in the high-flying, superstar-driven style that appeals to many advertisers and fans.
Each of the four NBA Finals featuring the San Antonio Spurs earned poor television ratings, compared to average ratings for the Finals.
Popovich has always been somewhat hostile with the media and sideline reporters—especially Turner’s Craig Sager—and he only had a few words for Hall of Famer Charles Barkley during last night’s telecast.
With a scramble to schedule games after the lockout last season, the NBA seemed to be understanding of Popovich’s strategy of sitting his starters. It worked as San Antonio had several prolonged winning streaks, including wins in each of its first ten playoff games, before finally succumbing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
It’s tough enough for the NBA to compete against the NFL during the first stretch of the basketball season—ESPN's college football game featuring Rutgers-Louisville and the NFL Network's Falcons-Saints matchup aired during the Heat-Spurs matchup on TNT—but it’s tougher when teams decide to sit healthy players.
But with a full offseason to recover and prepare, the league is rightfully angry with Popovich for sitting starters in a high-profile game in November—a game the Spurs lost without their best players.
Popovich’s First and Only Concern Is His Team
Gregg Popovich has coached Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili their entire careers. He’s kept his players relatively healthy and has won four championships.
Coach Pops knows his players better than anyone else. He’s the longest-tenured NBA coach for a reason: He knows how to win.
The Spurs were competing in the final contest of a six-game road trip. No one accused the team of mailing it in while winning the first five games of the road trip, including a double-overtime win vs. the Toronto Raptors.
Yet, Popovich had already rested his starters during the second half of blowout wins vs. the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic in the two games preceding the matchup against the Heat. The Boston Celtics (8-7) were the only team above .500 that the Spurs defeated during their five-game winning streak.
Popovich may have been upset that his team was playing its sixth-straight road game while the Miami Heat were playing their third-consecutive home game.
The Spurs were playing back-to-back road games—and their third game of the week—on Thursday night. Erik Spoelstra’s Heat team hadn’t played since last week, a win vs. the 3-12 Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.
But Coach Popovich always gets the most out of his players, losing a close game 105-100 on the road to the defending NBA champions.
The Spurs should be able to decide what’s best for their team. San Antonio had the best record in the West in the 2010-11 and in 2011-12 seasons. The Spurs have the most wins in the West in 2012-2013.
That may not be enough to satisfy the NBA or fans outside of San Antonio, but whatever they are doing, it works for their owner, fans, coaches and players.
NBA Fans Hurt When Healthy Players Sit Out
The San Antonio Spurs only visit Miami once this season. Fans who purchased high-priced tickets were probably looking forward to an early season litmus test featuring two championship teams.
Instead, they missed out on watching Tim Duncan, a future Hall of Famer, play one of his last games in Miami, as well as the opportunity to gauge how well the Heat can play against top-notch competition.
ESPN reported that this game was the most expensive contest for Heat fans this month.
Some fans don’t have season tickets and this might have been the only game they chose to watch this year. Even season-ticket holders manage to tolerate those pricey games featuring subpar teams with the promise they’ll watch a few high-profile games each season.
NBA fans already put up with a lot: lockouts, purchasing jerseys of players that are here today and gone tomorrow, and the high cost of attending a NBA game.
Certainly, Popovich had to know this was a big game for NBA fans.