On Friday, the NBA will wrap up an exhibition schedule of games that it refers to as the “preseason,” which continues to be a laughable term. Even those of us that spend our mornings and afternoons staring at video clips of last season’s NBA games, the ones that sweat out the summer dying for NBA action, tend to pass on consistently viewing these sorts of affairs. There are highlights that can be culled, to be sure, but the idea of investing so much into one’s fandom into a sport and simultaneously watching a game that doesn’t count seems incongruous at best.
What also hurts, for that invested fan, is watching older players like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili go through paces in mid-October when you know you’re going to want to watch them at their peak in mid-June. This is why it’s helpful to have coaches like Gregg Popovich pulling players out of exhibition action in the face of what will be an 82-game season topped off with a possible two-month playoff run. As you likely know, Popovich declined to travel to Phoenix for an exhibition game last Thursday, leaving Duncan and Ginobili behind while other San Antonio Spurs rotation members sat with injury or illness.
Suns owner Robert Sarver, who once made a chicken dance gesture at the Spurs bench after they rested those same key players in a 2005 contest, took to the public address microphone to apologize to his fans because they weren’t allowed to see Duncan and Ginobili play a token 10 minutes in a meaningless game. When asked about his reaction to Sarver’s showy move, Popovich busted out some Grade-A Popisms. From Dan McCarney at the San Antonio Express-News:
“As I said, the silliness begins,” he said. “Most wise individuals would check facts before they made statements. Unless you’re interested in putting on a show. In that case, the facts get in your way, as in this case.
“We had five guys we didn’t send. Patty Mills had a shoulder operation over the summer. Tiago Splitter (calf) has been out the whole preseason. Kawhi Leonard (eye infection) was out and is still out for 10 more days. The other two, Duncan and Ginobili, are two of the oldest guys in the league who just came back from a 13-day European trip.
“The only thing that surprises me is that he didn’t say it in a chicken suit. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Robert Sarver does want to put on a show. He’s always wanted to put on a show, spending way over market value for both the Suns (not a great call at the time), Steve Nash (ditto, though it eventually turned out well) and Quentin Richardson (the opposite) before closing up his wallet and selling off draft pick after draft pick even during the height of the Steve Nash era, as our Dan Devine noted. He was one of the vocal proponents for the cancellation of the entire 2011-12 NBA season, something that would have been an absolute killer for thousands whose income relies on being able to go to an arena to work a few nights a week, before then complaining about the number of games during that lockout-shortened season.
He used to wear a foam finger at games, something my pre-teen daughters are now too embarrassed to do. He used to dress up in a gorilla suit.
Here’s what Gregg Popovich does.
He rests his players, some of whom he was lucky enough to draft (Duncan) and some of whom we've been lucky enough to be introduced to because of his scouting acumen (Manu Ginobili). He understands better than anyone that the Spurs will be scheduled to play 90 exhibition and regular-season contests between the first week of October and the second week of April, before once again embarking on a playoff run that they hope will last two full months – as it did in 2013 and this year. I mean, the “chicken suit” reference came from a game in 2005. A full 10 years before Pop hopes Ginobili can be at his best during the NBA playoffs.
Coach Popovich is doing it correctly, and until the NBA addresses its fatigue problem, this will continue to be a storyline. As it should be.
Fans are being burned by the product. An extended All-Star break isn’t the answer, and shortening the season isn’t the answer – because that isn’t fair to the displaced NBA fan living in another NBA city who wants to see his favorite team roll through town once or twice per year. The league could shorten games by half and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference – the amount of games and travel needed to show up at these performances is the problem.
The NBA won’t extend its calendar season, fearful of encroaching on Major League Baseball’s playoff territory and scared witless about extending the amount of time that it competes with its regular-season contests against NFL games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday. As a result, Sunday, Monday and Thursday NBA games in February will feature tired players dragging themselves up and down the court, as a new generation of bones and ligaments teeter on the edge as players grow longer, faster and stronger.
If there ever was a voice in defense of NBA orthodoxy, it would be the sainted David Robinson, who worked past his own 1996 foot injury to score two titles with Popovich in 1999 and 2003. Robinson appeared on XM Radio on Monday morning to defend his coach, as he sits the franchise cornerstone in Duncan that they drafted some 208 months ago:
Perhaps some snippets, for those of you at work:
"I don't know how you could criticize Popovich for resting guys in the preseason" David Robinson #TheStartingLineup
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) October 20, 2014
"Gregg Popovich is such a smart manager who is clearly ahead of everything and he understands what it takes to be successful" David Robinson
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) October 20, 2014
The NBA is a money-making organization and its players are well compensated for their role in that. During the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations in 2017, they will (and should) be even more compensated for their efforts. The league has done well to evolve and continue to try and produce top-grade entertainment for those that can afford tickets, a cable connection and/or NBA League Pass.
The league also sends half its teams overseas just a week after a too-short training camp. It schedules seven or eight exhibition games when two or three at most would suffice. It plays 82 games at a 48-minute length – which, again, is just fine – and it runs up a playoff schedule that could see the eventual victor potentially playing 28 games in total. Remember, though the Spurs won the Finals in a five-game walk last June, they went the full seven games against the formidable Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
Popovich should be resting his players. He should rest them in October, he should rest them in December, and he should rest them in April. It’s unfortunate that fans won’t get to see the Spurs (and any other team that smartly apes coach Pop’s practices) at full strength during some exhibition and regular-season games, but that’s the balance we’re going to have to tolerate for the ability to see Manu and Tim (or any other team's stars) at their best in May and June. The league, in response, needs to dare itself into greatness and extend the calendar year so that the regular season starts in early October, which would provide more travel breaks between games for players. Along with, shock horror, a chance for coaches to actually run in-season practices.
And really, when it comes down to things, whose side would you rather be on? We should be aligning with Robinson and Popovich in this instance. Or any other, really.
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