Spurs coach Gregg Popovich plays who he wants when he wants. Make no mistake about that. For years now, the veteran San Antonio boss has rested his veteran San Antonio players whenever he thought it would help his team. Of course, it’s tough to argue with a coaching philosophy that has yielded 17 trips to the playoffs in 17 complete seasons, to say nothing of five championships.
Still, there are those around the league who think they know better than Popovich which Spurs players should be on the floor at a given time or during a given game. They don’t have much evidence on their side, but they openly decry, subtly protest against, or perhaps at least secretly despise the strategy that Popovich has used to save as many minutes as possible on his aging superstars’ legs.
We were reminded of that fact this week, when Suns owner Robert Sarver took the public address microphone during the fourth quarter of a Phoenix-San Antonio preseason game to apologize to his fans for the quality of basketball that they were watching (or, you might say, enduring). Still, Sarver isn’t alone in his opinion of Popovich’s rest-anyone-at-any-time philosophy. Who would you add to this list?
1. Robert Sarver
The Suns owner became the inspiration for this article Thursday night when he got so fed up with the shorthanded and uncompetitive Spurs in a 121-90 Phoenix victory that he apologized to all the fans that had bought tickets, asking them to mail their used ticket stubs into the team to receive a special gift. (Watch Sarver’s impromptu speech here.) The Spurs were without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, and Tiago Splitter, as well as Popovich himself, who stayed home to rest after the team returned from a recent trip to Europe. (Of course, Sarver and Popovich have had run-ins about this topic before, most notably when the Suns owner flapped his arms like a chicken during a 2005 game to taunt Popovich for leaving his best players in San Antonio.) Apparently preseason is a big deal in Phoenix. Who knew?
2. David Stern
The most forceful reaction ever given to one of Popovich’s strategic game-long benchings came from then-NBA commissioner David Stern in 2012, when San Antonio left Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginóbili, and Danny Green home for a trip to Miami. While it wasn’t even close to the first time Popovich had chosen to sit players out due to the schedule’s wear and tear (remember when Duncan was humorously listed as ‘DND-OLD’ in a March 2012 box score?), Pop drew plenty of attention for this choice, which, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, happened to fall on the night of a nationally televised game between two of the best teams in the league (and San Antonio’s only visit to South Beach that year). Stern ripped the Spurs’ decision as “unacceptable” and promised “substantial sanctions,” following through by levying a $250,000 fine. Now, Popovich is new commissioner Adam Silver’s problem, not Stern’s, which should end up better for San Antonio, considering Silver once famously said that, “Gregg Popovich is probably the last coach that I would second-guess” when asked about “strategic resting.”
3. Pat Riley/Erik Spoelstra
To be fair, we can’t be 100% sure that the Miami Heat brain-trust of Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra disapprove of Popovich’s frequent star-resting. (In fact, when coaching the Lakers, Riley was actually fined $25K for resting Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the 1990 season’s final game.) However, we can at least offer two pieces of circumstantial evidence — one serious and one slightly more silly. To begin with, the Heat nearly returned the favor in 2012-2013 after the Spurs kept their stars in Texas that season. When Miami visited San Antonio a few months later, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were suddenly missing from the rotation with minor injuries. (Passive-aggressive retribution, perhaps? We’re not saying — we’re just saying.) Of course, whether Spo and Riley really have a problem with Popovich or not, the bottom line remains: If the Spurs didn’t rest their veteran starters so much last year, they may not have had fresh enough legs to knock out the defending champion Heat in the NBA Finals. So we feel quite confident that whenever Riley and Spoelstra look at the spot in their trophy case where the 2014 version could have resided, they each shake their head and wish Popovich would dump his apparently brilliant plan sooner rather than later. (Don’t hold your breath, though.)