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

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.

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