Benching NBA stars causes controversy from commissioner

December 5, 2012

Last week, NBA commissioner David Stern fined the San Antonio Spurs organization $250,000 for benching their key players on the night of a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. The game was the last of the Spurs’ six game road trip, and it preceded an important home game against divisional rival the Memphis Grizzles.

Stern reasoned that by benching Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Danny Green, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had done a disservice to the fans, the television network and the league itself.

After all the premature hoopla and controversy, the depleted Spurs only lost to the defending champions by five points.

Stern’s swift action may have set a precedent that will continue to influence regulation in the NBA: Business incentives will be prioritized over the players’ health. After all, Popovich had rested his players for primarily health reasons. The veteran Spurs had played five games in eight days, and in that time, they had relied much on key players like Duncan and Parker.

As a coach, Popovich made a decision to put significant weight on a more winnable game against the Memphis Grizzlies, and to de-emphasize the game with the Miami Heat. One would think, as a coach, he would have the capability to make this decision. Stern’s response, however, says otherwise.

Looking into the future, there is much to consider. Where does Stern’s jurisdiction end? Had Popovich played each of his key players for one minute in the game, and then decided to rest them for the other 47 minutes, would he have been penalized?

Of course, Stern is considering the business implications that may have arisen from Popovich’s decision. As the commissioner, he is responsible for speculating how benching superstars may change the nature of the game.

But I think Stern’s decision was a bit shortsighted and abrupt. After all, the Spurs put on a good show even though they were missing their best players. Moreover, if indeed the quality of performance in a professional basketball game is important to securing fans and media coverage, perhaps it is in the league’s long-term interest for a coach to rest his superstar players who may be in the twilight of their careers.

Other professional sports leagues are certainly aware of that fact. The NFL has taken several measures to ensure player safety, recently having drawn up new regulations regarding concussions and illegal tackles.

The MLB is also lenient toward managers who act in the best interest of their players; no punishment was handed out to the Washington Nationals for resting Stephen Strasberg at the end of this season.

If Stern has a problem with a coach resting his best players, he should take matters into his own hands. He can make sure that schedules are such that they do not require a team with a week’s rest to play one that’s in the middle of a grueling six game road trip on national television. It is time the NBA, Stern in particular, start paying more attention to the health of their players. I am sure fans across America will understand.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Dec. 5 print edition. Nishad Ruparel is a contributing writer. Email him at sports@nyunews.com. 

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