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David Stern would be out of line for Punishing Gregg Popovich

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November 30, 2012 by shivusharma

David Stern shaking hands with Gregg Popovich

David Stern shaking hands with Gregg Popovich

Last night, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich announced that four of his key players, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Tim Duncan, did not travel with the team to their game against the Miami Heat. David Stern was angry that the fans did not get to see the best product they could on the court, and promised to hand out penalties against the Spurs. In my opinion, Stern has a legitimate reason to be angry, but I don’t think there are grounds for him to penalize Popovich specifically.

This incident highlighted the biggest difference between how a true corporation is run and how the NBA is run. In a true corporation, the CEO and the various departments in the company are all functioning to get closer to one common goal. The NBA is very different though. It’s sort of a confederacy of 30 groups with their own interests, and one governing body (led by Stern) trying to function in the best interest of the business. Stern has to get all of the teams on the same page to make money for the NBA, and all the while, each individual team is competing with each other for wins on the court. This ability to balance the collective interests of the NBA with the self-interests of each team is why Stern’s job is so difficult.  There are a lot of moving parts here, and most of these parts are moving in opposite directions.

This situation with the Spurs boils down to conflicting interests. Stern’s interests are to preserve the integrity of the NBA brand and generate income. Popovich’s objective is to manage his players throughout the course of a season, and give his team the best chance to win the most games. Especially knowing the age of the Spurs’ core group, as well as their injury history, giving them a night off is totally defensible. This decision was not an impulse choice by Popovich either. It was pre-meditated based on analysis of the schedule and  assessment of his players’ health.

Stern has a right to be mad, because his primary concern is the business of the NBA and its customers, but this isn’t a case where he can find fault in how Popovich acted. He is a head coach, not a company executive. His primary goal is to win basketball games, not make the fans (especially those of Miami) happy. His responsibilities are to win as many games as possible for his organization. It’s not to make sure that his players are on the court during a nationally televised game when it is not in the best interest of the team’s long-term goals.

I’m also bugged by how quick David Stern was to declare sanctions on the Spurs. The least he could do is take time to examine the details of the situation before making a judgment. We didn’t even hear about Popovich resting his players until the day of the game. In a situation like this, it would be best to examine all the details and not make a snap judgment.

This idea of sitting key players is not a new development for Popovich either. There were several times last year where Popovich sat his starting players, many of them being at the end of a long road trip, where rest would be beneficial to his older, more injury-prone players. It’s not like Popovich is “tanking” either. He is taking a calculated risk by reducing his chances of winning one game, to improve his chances of winning several other games in the season. Non-playoff teams purposefully benching their starters to intend to lose games and get a better draft position is a much bigger problem.

In the future, perhaps there are ways to institute rules that can help prevent this from happening, or at least describe a defined penalty. If that were the case, then the coach could weigh the negatives of the penalty against the positives of resting his players, and proceed accordingly. That isn’t the case though, and until there is a clear rule, Stern doesn’t really have a fair reason to penalize Popovich. He has a right to be mad at Popovich, but it would simply be unjust to penalize him for doing his job the way he saw fit.

He is outside of his jurisdiction when he tries to regulate personnel management decisions for individual teams. Again, this is the fundamental difference between being CEO of a corporation and Commissioner of a sports league. All Stern can do is regulate how each of the 30 teams can contribute to the NBA brand and collectively make money for each other. He cannot go into each organization and tell them how to manage their talent, while ignoring the individual goals of their organization. Those personnel decisions fall on the NBA owners. The best Stern can do is institute some kind of rule that prevents this from happening during a nationally televised game.

Despite what others think, Stern will penalize the Spurs and Popovich, because he does things his way. It’s been like this ever since he was made commissioner in 1984. His stubbornness and ego have been both a huge asset and huge detriment to the NBA in specific instances. So far the good has outweighed the bad, and Stern has become the best commissioner in pro sports history. I hope he is able to not make too big a deal out of this incident and end his tenure as commissioner on a positive note.

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