Stern vs Popovich: Little White Lies and a League of Stars

Posted on Mon 03 December 2012 in Features by Alex Dewey

Gregg Popovich acted in bad faith in resting his starters the way he did. Pop should have been more discreet and subtle about sitting his four best players. The message here isn't that teams can't rest players. They can, and they will. But be discreet about it. Be smart about it. Communicate it. And show some concern for the sometimes futile, often unfair exercise known as the NBA regular season, without which no championships can be won and no dynasties formed.

This is an attempt at summarizing the general point against Coach Popovich's decision. It's a set of arguments that deserves examination, both on their numerous merits and faults. Ken Berger's piece is an excellent summation -- "keep up appearances" even if it is slightly dishonest. You can tank, but dear god, don't say you're tanking. Don't say you're taking nights off and that the plane has already left for San Antonio. Keep them around, report an injury, keep it hush-hush. When I read the tone of this general argument, I disagreed fundamentally and didn't quite know why. Sure, Berger's tone in certain passages serves to undermine his argument to the casual reader (For instance... "But let's play along for a moment, shall we? Let's play along better than the Spurs did." What? How is that anything other than inflammatory?) But it's an overall solid take on the situation, and one that you can't ignore.

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Little White Lies

I landed in a long Twitter argument with Matt Moore centering on Berger's article, one that I don't wish to call back to in a broader sense. But one example stood out. Moore mentioned that you can claim you're feeling sick to get out of a boring co-worker's party, and that doing so is far preferable to calling them boring to their face. That's a powerful example: "Little white lies" are great for seamlessly getting us out of obligations that may not be good for us or we may not enjoy. Keeping up appearances is important, because you have to see that co-worker again and again, and everyone suffers, just because you decided to be honest to your co-worker. Dave Chappelle had a wonderful set of sketches on his show back in the day about "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong".

Well, that's what the Spurs did on Thursday.

Yes, rest is important, and for the Spurs not to acknowledge this fact in 2012 would be foolish. Yes, inter-conference games have a low incentive to win relative to conference and divisional games, except (generally speaking) as statement games for Eastern teams and gimmes for Western teams. Sure, the regular season is probably way too long for the idealized season of basketball health, and plenty of coaches less noble and/or less empowered than Popovich (*cough*, Thibodeau, *cough*) wear out their starters to often-horrifying effects, and this is clearly a bad thing. All of this is true.

Sidenote: This is especially true for older players, and the more we learn about medical science, the more we learn how crucial rest is (look at the concussion debate in the NFL; rest is one of the most important points in any sport's concussion policy). And the risk of fluke injuries and overwork is ever-present. Look at Tim Duncan in 2009 and 2010 playoffs, as Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald reminds us. Or, just as notably, look at Manu's elbow injury in 2011 that quite conceivably cost the Spurs a playoff series against Memphis. The freak injury was suffered during a meaningless game in Phoenix at the end of the season.

But they still goofed. Badly. The Spurs refused to give the league any advance notice of the impending rest-game, despite (in Coach Pop's own words) knowing since they first saw the schedule that the Heat game would be "one of those" rest games. For all the arguments in favor of why they did it, few actually address how they did it. Because, frankly, it's indefensible. Popovich being Popovich, in his usual caustic way. And Berger correctly notes that the manner in which Popovich approached the rest -- if perhaps not pointedly inflammatory -- was so completely tone-deaf it does merit some sort of acknowledgment, punishment, or course adjustment. Decorum and standards aren't everything, but they aren't nothing either. Let's play the co-worker argument out again, as it should've happened and as Popovich should've handled it: you tell your co-worker that you need some rest, they accept it and everyone moves on with their lives, the party a little poorer for your absence, the boring co-worker happy in his boring party with his boring acquaintances, and you're living it up at home, watching the Spurs torch the Miami Heat and lose in the end, but not without giving everyone an entertaining little romp. Everyone wins for this little deception. Right? I think so. Little white lies save the day. The End, everyone's happy.

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Except, wait. Maybe not. Your co-worker announces after the success of his party last night that he's going to have a party every two weeks, and you're always invited over! Even if you're sick sometimes, even if you have a doctor's appointment, he will accommodate you and request your presence another Thursday night! You have no excuse not to go, now! Haha, screw your life! This is the part where you tell him he's boring to his face. I mean, unless you're in the bridge burning business, you probably don't put it quite like that. You probably say "I'm not a big party guy, I'm not very social. We kinda have other interests. Not so big on strobe black lights set to isolated bass tracks from Metallica put on a mind-numbingly loud speaker for six hours straight, as you are." Your co-worker nods grimly, hearing the subtext. You're never going to be his good buddy.

But ultimately, he moves on with his life, and you are feel free to put in the odd occasion at his place or find something mutually agreeable, supposing he's a decent person that you can get along with, at least. That's if you eschew the lies. The little white lies can't address systematic problems, and I don't hope you'll try. Try to address that situation with your co-worker again with little white lies. Say you're busy with a doctor's appointment. Say you are in a bowling league. Say something different every fortnight, whatever you want to get out of your biweekly travesty... and one of two things will happen: 1. He gets the hint, and finds your treatment of the situation extremely disrespectful (as it is). 2. He doesn't get the hint and assumes you're living a life that is totally tightly-scheduled and rarely available -- in short, an interesting or eventful life that you haven't thought him worthy of forming even a small part. I'd find that latter possibility a lot more insulting than just being called boring.

When you apply little white lies to systematic situations, the result is a culture of deception and a pernicious policy of bad faith. And systemic bad faith has a way of sliding into the kind of bad faith that makes Popovich's bad faith in sending four players home look like The Giving Tree. Don't buy it? Well, just look at this laughably sneaky move undertaken by the Warriors. Little white lies to preserve the bottom line that spiral into grand deception. Tanking is fine by me, but not disclosing that you're tanking by hiding valuable information from your loyal-to-a-fault fans for months? THAT'S inexcusable, and unlike the Spurs' "probably should have given more than a couple hours' notice" sneakiness, it probably cost a number of season ticket holders thousands of dollars apiece on the margins. The bottom line is that this scandal that actually cost middle-class fans thousands of dollars got pushed to the back page by a much more innocuous story, and why?

Because lying about major injuries has become so commonplace that it hardly bears mention.

Pressuring injured players to return with deliberately liberal timelines (the old saw "day-to-day" was addressed in The Breaks of the Game) is as old as the injured list itself. So the Spurs should've told a fib, sure, or at least been a bit more discreet. They should've kept up appearances. And for that, it was reasonable and right that they be punished, even if you think they were in the right. And so Berger's point is well-taken. But it's important to delineate a broader point where it falls apart: keeping up appearances can never be a substitute for systematically good incentives and good products. Keeping up appearances can never be a substitute for marketing creativity or recognizing what the product you're bringing to the table is. And keeping up appearances is a short-term solution, a band-aid, in the parlance, to problems that often go much more deeper than appearances can ever address.

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"I know you hate the Heat, bro. But Tiago Splitter, bro. The Spurs are [fornification throwback word] amazing. Boris Diaw is like staring at a lava lamp set on full chill mode. Way better than Richard Jefferson. I shouldn't have tried to sell you on RJ last season, bro needed a pat on the back just to stay in the game against the Heat. No confidence at all. I'm sorry about that, bro, that was embarrassing, and I was wrong. Come on, change the channel to TNT. Bro. Bro."

-- 99% of my conversations with other people, in short.

Which brings me to Nando De Colo. Tiago Splitter. Matt Bonner. Gary Neal. Boris Diaw. Patty Mills. Household names. ... Well, obviously not. That's what this whole thing is about, right? That those players are unmarketable non-entities that probably can't sell the casual fan to tune into on the margin. The Spurs threw the league under the bus on Thursday, even if the outcome was fine. I get this sentiment, but look more broadly: it's a self-deconstructing argument! The league itself threw the league under the bus in its marketing strategy by making that lineup impossible to market.

Consider: thanks partially to these players, since late 2010, the Spurs are in the midst of one of the more dominant regular season stretches in NBA history. They are also all international stars, both in terms of where they've played (all of them played overseas), and in terms of what nations they represent (Brazil, France, Australia, Canada on a technicality, France). Bonner is a self-deprecating, seven-foot tall, utterly unique player with a sandwich blog who parties with Arcade Fire. Patty Mills is one of the fastest, most energetic players in a league of fast-moving athletes and an inspiration to an entire peoples. Diaw is one of the best passing bigs in recent memory, and a hilarious-looking player with a funny shot. This isn't to advocate on these players' behalf, necessarily. Just to show that it can be done. And, considering the number of international players, that this sort of thing should already have been done! There's a finite quantity of beloved players, but the NBA is far from saturated when Australia's star speedster (and someone that absolutely lit up our Team USA Olympian best this summer) is a non-entity.

Stern's league of stars abides no framework for these interesting, entertaining, teamwork-heavy players that don't quite fit onto a cereal box. Instead of encouraging the unfamiliar, the international, and the elite, Stern actively punishes teams that showcase these players because they aren't already established stars, like (ironically) Parker and Ginobili. I say "ironically" because Parker and Ginobili (and Duncan, to a lesser extent) only won begrudging respect from fans by cutting their teeth in three championship runs that made it impossible to marginalize them with "soft" labels. And even after establishing themselves in every way it is possible for a player to do, the NBA has traditionally done Parker and Ginobili no favors in terms of marketing except for existing as a showcase for their now-legendary skills. Consider that both Parker and Ginobili have had to operate at barely-sub-MVP levels at times simply to get All-Star levels of respect (much less MVP talk), even while doing certain things historically well. And yet, these are the players that Stern has designated as being so crucial to the appeal of the Spurs that sitting them was apparently a travesty worthy of censure and sanction.

That's the irony. Stern is saying that he'll do these players no favors in terms of marketing, and yet, when they become established, they are socially obligated to do him the favor of showing "good faith". All the while players that could be getting plenty of marketing their way (the new generation of Spurs' foreign players), the league is found wanting there. If the Spurs are throwing the league under the bus by not giving fans Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, then what precisely has the league done in failing to promote these legends before their primes are soon finished? If the Spurs are throwing the league under the bus by giving them apparently random foreign players (that just happened to, without exception, play splendid ball for their countries' Olympic teams), then what precisely has the league done in allowing the entire bench of a great team to escape the notice of casual fans?

The Seven Seconds or Less era was wonderful and entertaining, but perhaps it was more than anything else the prototype of a new way to market the sport. Bill Simmons once called them a "critically acclaimed" team (a back-handed compliment for their inability to get a ring, to be sure). That's the thing about the Suns: you could market them as an international force. You could market them as an exciting combination of athleticism and vision and cohesion. You could market them (and all their next-generation acolytes like the Triangle Lakers, the Motion Spurs, the Ubuntu Celtics, the Grindhouse Grizzlies, and the Program Thunder), not just as a collection of well-documented and compelling individuals, but a true team. The lights have changed, and you don't have to be a diehard to appreciate it. And I wonder if Stern's noticed. Based on his rigid implied treatment of the Spurs as three marquee stars plus an incidental supporting cast, it's safe to assume until proven otherwise that Stern simply hasn't noticed. While the Spurs will likely make some minor institutional tweaks, I'm guessing they'll be the first to admit that staying ahead of the curve in terms of how a modern, international team ought to be run is worth more than $250,000.

And if the NBA's designated international wizard -- David Stern -- had considered it in that context? He might agree.

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