The Popovich Problem

Pop power.

Gregg Popovich got me. Yesterday, after he announced that he would rest Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker for the Spurs’ nationally televised game against the Spurs, I was incensed. And while I recognize the arguments about rest and the grind of NBA scheduling, for this particular coach to sit his players for this particular game seems like an obvious troll move, no matter how much “who me?” faux innocence he might project.

Here was my thinking, before yesterday’s game: For all the arguments to be made about the schedule or Popovich’s right to do with his team as he sees fit, this move is basically disrespectful to the NBA product, and there’s no reason to excuse that. I get it—Pop is a genius, this is masterful psychological warfare, whatever—but at the end of the day, why have an NBA if the great games aren’t played? What else is the league for, if not to produce entertaining basketball? This move, in that sense, is anti-basketball, and there’s no reason to give Pop a pass because of Great Man fetishization.

It seems to me that there is a precedent here. When changes need to be made to the game, or the structure of the league, we as fans have established a simple demand: settle it off the court. When an aggrieved gunner refuses to pass, or refuses to shoot, he is demonized. When labor disputes threaten the structural integrity of the league, the parties responsible are taken to task. Fans, in instances like this, mostly want beefs settled away from the game.

So the reasons to defend Pop, to my eye, were inconsistent with the way fans usually behave. For Popovich to threaten the on-court product means that he should be as widely castigated as a player or owner who does the same. Why can’t we applaud all the great things about Popovich and the way he advocates for his players without fawning over this contemptuous move?

In the light of morning, after the Spurs nearly won anyway, I have to revisit my position. The rigors of the league are such that fans and TV rights holders can only ask for competitive basketball—beyond that, there are too many variables. Tim Duncan really might turn an ankle. A flu really can remove most of a roster from competition. Fans know that, and for whatever disappointment comes of mishaps like those, what we ask is competitive basketball. And last night, we got it.

What arises, then, is an older and more difficult question to settle about fan ideologies. Sports are typically the domain of ends justifying means, but when a system presents the opportunity for patently cynical means, things get complicated. The obvious analogy here is draft tanking, which is obviously contemptuous of the fan experience, but even that does not quite apply here. The Spurs lost by five. They covered a spread that was set before the starts were pulled. Popovich tanked, right up until the moment that he didn’t.

Coaches must have the final say, we all know. Coaches must protect some degree of inviolability, whether through manipulation or militancy. It’s engrained in the culture of sport that at some point the time for disagreement passes and you do what coach asks. But are there lines to be drawn around this idea? When a coach acting in the interest of his team—not even next year’s team and draft picks, but this year’s team—runs up against the viability of a game, it’s natural to question where the sphere of control ends.

In David Stern’s mind, the answer is to substitute the absolute authority of one man for that of another. With the commissioner now threatening “substantial sanctions” against the Spurs for sitting the stars, none of the underlying questions about last night are answered. Popovich asked: Who has ownership of this game experience—the men creating it, or the fans consuming it? He asked: How much do you trust me, acting in the deified role of coach, to provide you with a quality basketball experience? He asked: Why should I be party to the league’s marquee nights at the expense of my aging players?

None of those questions are answered today. Instead what we have is a wait-and-see period while Stern decides exactly how much Popovich and the Spurs will pay for being prepared to put their finger in the eye of fans, advertisers and rights holders. That they did not actually do so, that they produced competitive basketball that ended up within our range of expectations as a contest, is not material to Stern. He’s substituting one authoritarian for another, without changing any part of the system that led to this situation. And while I’m sure I don’t like the decision Popovich reached before last night’s game, I’m not so sure the answer is more fealty to one man’s whims.

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  4. We are the NBA’s referee problem
  5. The Problem With Replay Review
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