Relax, Tim Duncan deserves a night off
My friend John Smallwood of the Daily News wrote a provocative column Monday night about Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to rest Tim Duncan against the Sixers.
Because the game marked the Spurs’ only visit to Philadelphia this season, John argued that Popovich had committed “borderline consumer fraud” by keeping a healthy Duncan on the bench and depriving people around here the opportunity to see him play.
And John is wrong, wrong, wrong.
What he’s done, and done well, is cut to the heart of an old and complex question: What is a professional sports franchise’s first obligation? Is it to try to win that night’s game? Is it to do what’s in its best interest over the long term? Is it to put on a good show for whoever is watching in the arena or at home?
John talked to a Spurs fan who had traveled to the Wells Fargo Center from Lancaster County to see her favorite team, and she was disappointed, understandably so, that Duncan did not play.
I received a similar email this morning from a longtime Sixers season-ticket holder who lamented Duncan’s absence, particularly since Duncan — perhaps the greatest power forward in basketball history — is nearing the end of his career and may never play in Philadelphia again.
A few points in response:
+ Popovich’s first obligation, I would argue, isn’t to the fans — not even to Spurs fans and certainly not to Sixers fans. His first obligation is to do what he thinks is best to get his team in position to win as many regular-season and playoff games as possible, to compete for a championship. He didn’t rest Duncan on Monday because Duncan’s already tired seven games into an 82-game season. Duncan isn’t tired. But he is 37 years old, and a night off now might help preserve his legs and some stamina for a more consequential contest or series later.
+ I can hear the counterargument already: Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson never would have taken a night off! To which I say: Tim Duncan is not them. Jordan and Iverson could spend a long night in Atlantic City or munch on bar food from Houlihan’s before a big game, and they’d remain fresh over a full season. (Would they have been so fresh if they hadn’t lived so hard off the court? Only they can say.) If Duncan needs a night of rest here and there, per Popovich’s insistence, so be it. Popovich is the coach. His opinion is the one that’s supposed to count, right?
+ The decision to sit Duncan wasn’t exactly a bolt from the blue. Popovich has done this before (against the Miami Heat, no less), so an NBA fan has to understand that purchasing a ticket to a Spurs game comes with a calculated risk: One of the team’s veteran stars — Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili — might not play. And though I don’t know this for certain, I’m willing to bet that when Popovich first looked over the Spurs’ 2013-14 schedule, he targeted Monday as a perfect opportunity to rest Duncan. Monday’s game was the second of back-to-back East Coast games for the Spurs — they’d waxed the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday — and it would have been reasonable for Popovich to think, I can sit Timmy against the Sixers, and we can still win. And they did, with ease: 109-85.
+ The argument that Popovich stole one more glimpse at Duncan from Sixers fans would have been more compelling in a bygone era of sports, when the only way to see a great player was to tune in on black-and-white TV or buy a ticket. These days, with ESPN, ABC, TNT, TBS, NBA TV, and infinite online options, a Spurs fan in Tokyo might have seen more of Duncan than the average Yankees fan in the Bronx saw of Mickey Mantle. Just some perspective.
Follow Mike Sielski on Twitter: @MikeSielski