If you heard the news that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would sit out four of his star players for Thursday night’s game against the Miami Heat, you probably didn’t bother watching the game on TNT. If so, then shame on you. It ended up being a fantastic game, and you would have gained a whole lot more respect for the San Antonio franchise.
In short, I think this was a BRILLIANT move by Popovich. That’s right – I’m going to rave about Popovich and the Spurs, because I doubt that many others will. He is hands down the best coach in the league, and this controversial decision is one of many that makes him as such.
Popvich’s decision to sit out his star trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, as well as swingman Danny Green (who was leading the team in minutes played), caused an uproar with both fans and the league. Commissioner David Stern even threatened to impose heavy sanctions on them for this act. I feel sympathetic for the fans that bought tickets to see the Spurs’ stars go at it against the defending champs. But those of us that respect Popvich gave him the benefit of the doubt. His reasoning? The Spurs were playing their 4th game in 5 nights, and he did not want to overexert his guys this early in the season (his usual grounds for resting his star players and submitting a “DNP – Old” to the box score). From a basketball standpoint, it makes complete sense. For the fans hoping to see a star studded game, not so much. But because Popovich is the one in question, we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Now, San Antonio did end up losing the game. But for the game’s first 47 minutes, Popovich and the Spurs showed everyone up and had Miami on the ropes. If not for a few late heroics from LeBron James and Ray Allen, the Spurs would have easily held on to their late lead and won the game despite being short handed. For a team whose starting lineup features a guy named Nando del Colo, that’s a pretty damn good showing against the defending champions. They may have lost the game, but in the end, they received a tremendous boost of confidence in their team overall. Would they have gained as much from playing their aging stars in what most likely would have been a very hard-fought, grind-out game? In that sense, Popovich is one of the very few coaches that understand the nuances of building a successful regular season; he was less concerned with winning one game and instead, found a way to give his entire supporting cast a ton of confidence knowing that they can hang with a team like the Heat on their own. The regular season is a marathon – not a sprint – and he knows exactly how to manage it as such.
His masterful lineup management does not just consist of sitting out his players for entire games. Within games themselves, he is great at managing minutes for both his stars and role players. For an aging roster, particularly Duncan (36) and Ginobili (35) , it is absolutely crucial to conserve minutes for the more important games. In doing that, his bench players provide valuable minutes and gain valuable experience, thus making them better players. He fully understands that it’s absolutely worth losing a couple regular season games over allowing valuable rest for his stars before the playoff grind. In the end, he has a well rounded and supremely confident roster. If you wonder why guys you’ve never heard of can hang with a team like Miami, Popovich’s masterful lineup management is exactly why.
The Spurs have been and continue to be great, and it has little to do with how much talent they have. To put it in perspective, Duncan is the only former lottery pick on the entire roster. Unlike teams like the Lakers, their greatness isn’t a result of big time free agent acquisitions either. The Lakers get a lot of credit for landing free agents, but that has just as much to do with LA being an appealing destination than anything the Lakers front office does. Spurs GM R.C. Buford, on the other hand, knows what kind of players to get: those without any egos, players that he knows would get along with Popovich, and would maximize their effort every time they step on the court. Those with the right attitude excel in Popovich’s system. Hardly ever do you hear about players on the Spurs roster complaining about their playing time or touches. You also hardly hear about any of them getting into any off-court incidents (except Tony Parker, though he had no direct involvement with the Chris Brown-Drake nightclub feud over the summer). With the media attention constantly centered around teams like the Lakers and Heat, the Spurs always seem to quietly put together a team that’s always in contention for the title.
In short, the Spurs are the best run franchise in the NBA. From the front office to the team personnel, the organization is top notch. Being a small market and “boring” team, it’s a shame that everyone takes them for granted. Tonight’s game only solidified that even more.
I know David Stern is upset, and he’s just sticking up for NBA fans. But you can’t fault Popovich for being absolutely brilliant – he’s a big reason why the Spurs have one of the NBA’s most successful franchises despite being anything but the center of attention.