NBA Shouldn’t Punish Spurs For Benching Stars

When you consider the success of long-term NBA contenders, there’s perhaps no controversy more irrelevant than the San Antonio Spurs’ decision to bench their stars in their nationally televised contest on a Thursday night in November against the Miami Heat.

Coach Greg Popovich’s decision to sit Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green will be only an afterthought come playoff time, when the Spurs resume sitting in their annual spot atop the Western Conference. At 13-4, San Antonio is only a half game back of the conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies despite easing Ginobili back into the rotation by playing him less than 23 minutes per game off the bench.

Clearly, Popovich’s decision was made with a watchful eye fixated on the playoffs, the real indicator of a successful 2012-13 campaign for the Spurs. The team finished first the West last season, but their strong regular season became irrelevant when the team blew a 2-0 lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

For this veteran-laden team destined to cruise into the playoffs, regular season success is secondary to ensuring the health of their core players going into the postseason, a fact that’s just as a true for so many other contenders as the grind of an 82-game season wears on.

However, when the NBA levied a hefty $250,000 fine against the Spurs for sitting their star players against the Heat, league Commissioner David Stern sent a strong message that such practices will not be tolerated in order to preserve the integrity of the NBA’s regular season.

The sanctions placed upon the Spurs only highlight the hypocrisy of Stern reign atop the basketball world. The bottom line is that it is simply unfair to expect these athletes to endure the grind of the 82-game regular season, in which teams are periodically scheduled to play four games in five nights on the road, as was the case when the Spurs opted to rest their most valued players.

Regardless of the perhaps unrealistic expectations placed upon the players, most teams trot out their expected lineup without resting seemingly healthy, if not fatigued, core rotation players. However, Popovich’s executive decision to sit his aging stars shouldn’t be punished; instead, it should be lauded as a choice that could potentially change the landscape of the NBA.

In Major League Baseball, it’s not uncommon for managers to rest their most important players, a policy that’s become commonplace due to a schedule that includes no built-in rest to protect the health the players who make the sport watchable. Although this practice hasn’t become conventional among NBA teams, Popovich’s decision to display it in front of plenty of eyes on national television could be seen as a public message that the NBA’s regular season is too long and meaningless.

Whether Popovich benched his star players to send a message to the league or merely in the interest of his team’s long-term prospects, we will never know. But one could argue that it’s not only his prerogative to ensure that his players are healthy going into the playoffs—it’s also his job.

Every coach has the right to make the personnel decisions that best situate their team for “success,” whatever that term constitutes for a given team. For the Spurs, success isn’t determined by their regular season, it’s hinged upon how far Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can carry the team in the playoffs. Thus, it’s Coach Popovich’s responsibility to keep these players fresh for their inevitable playoff run.

For Stern to step in and impose sanctions upon Popovich and the Spurs for running their team the way they see fit is wrong on so many levels. The league office making personnel decisions on behalf of coaches sets a scary precedent; hypothetically speaking, why couldn’t the league demand that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade play in the Heat’s last game of the regular season, even if the team has already locked up their playoff seeding and has nothing to gain from a meaningless regular season game?

Meanwhile, the league has done nothing to address the issue of tanking, in which teams at the bottom of their conference standings play a less-than-optimal rotation to lose games in order to give themselves better odds at receiving the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.

Lost in the shuffle is that the starless-Spurs nearly made a fool out of Stern by beating the Heat with a second-string lineup. Would San Antonio had been fined if the likes of Nando de Colo, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter had knocked off the defending champs on Thursday?

Clearly, Stern fined the Spurs in hopes of sending a league-wide message that the benching of stars will not be tolerated in the NBA. But if he was truly interested in protecting the sanctity of regular season games, he would shorten the regular season to give each game more meaning. That way teams would have less incentive to tank games and sit their core players to prepare for the playoffs, when the NBA season really starts.

We know the season will never be shortened for financial reasons, but Stern and the league should brace themselves for benching controversies in the future should the regular season schedule remain status quo.

Summing Up The Lakers Problems

With it being no lockout this season, the Lakers took full advantage of the time and their prestige. They went out and added Steve Nash, a definite upgrade at point guard. If they were not finished there, they added Dwight Howard at center. Not as big an upgrade, but an upgrade nevertheless.

Then it begins, they hype that is!

The Lakers starting 1-4 is not a help to that hype. In fact, it can quickly turn into panic. That in itself creates problem number 1 for the purple and gold. Some players are not equipped to deal with that hype on a nightly basis. Looking up at that LA crowd is just a tad different from looking at any other NBA crowd. That will take time and I’m sure the Dwights of the world will definitely get past that part of the issue. Even though air balling a free throw is not an indication that it will be quite so soon.

Age might become the biggest of issues for this year’s Lakers. Lets not forget that Steve Nash had “Mike Miller Syndrome” at times last season. You could often find him lying on the bench, as opposed to the oh so traditional sitting. Nash is well on the other side of 35 and can’t possibly be as durable as you’d like your starting point guard to be.

Lets not forget about injuries to Howard and Bryant. While Bryant is indeed a warrior and will seemingly play through anything, injuries are injuries. With a few more losses, those injuries may begin to hurt just a tad more. Howawrd is still recovering from back surgery but looks fine offensively. Coming into the season most would’ve thought that his injuries would be the most troublesome, however those tides have turned quite quickly.

Some will say that the main problem is coaching and those same may want the immediate removal of one Mike Brown. This is the guy that missed on delivering a title in Cleveland, but we won’t even touch on that. Mike Brown has been given a loaded team and he might want to turn it around due to that aforementioned panic.

Here is why you can’t blame Mike Brown, and is possibly the biggest reason for the Lakers’ stumble. By trading for Dwight Howard the Lakers are essentially saying that the Bryant era is nearing its end. Bryant, himself, has acknowledged that he may hang it up once his contract is over.

While Bryant can still put the ball in the goal as good as anybody, it just doesn’t fit what Mike Brown wants to do on offense. Running Brown’s “Princeton” offense (which i find hilarious) is quite the opposite of running your offense through Bryant.

The Lakers clearly want to move forward, but they don’t want to let go. By no way am I saying they should trade Bryant but maybe its time for somebody to realize something. Having two guys that can be near unstoppable at times (Bryant and Howard) but taking the ball out of their hands for back cuts and sliding screens just can’t be the most effective way to use them.

To sum up the Lakers’ Problems, their problems are themselves at this point. They went out and spent the money, made the deals, therefore created the hype. At some point someone will have to look in the mirror and ponder about the present.

If this tart is any indication, the Lakers could be in more trouble than what we actually think.

Why Can’t LeBron Reach Jordan’s Level?

It’s understandable why there is taboo about saying anyone could ever be better than Michael Jordan. He was 6-6 in NBA Finals appearances, he won the MVP in each of those Finals, he won five league MVP awards, he won ten scoring titles, he was one of the rare perimeter players to win Defensive Player of the Year, and he even averaged 37.5 points in an 82-gamen season while making just 12 three-pointers.

We get it, he transcended the sport.

Like anyone else, there is a possibility that Jordan could eventually be overshadowed by another talent. The media likes to deem the Vince Carters, Tracy McGradys and Jerry Stackhouses of the world the next Jordan, yet they all failed. Kobe Bryant won’t ever be a Jordan, LeBron James probably will suffer the same fate in terms of greatness. The real problem is why it’s a problem to even address the possibility.

Jordan’s greatness is unique in that his competitiveness will likely never be matched, no one will surpass that and that’s fine. But when talking about greatness, it goes past just how competitive someone was.

We can harp on LeBron’s failures in the two NBA Finals before his eventual title this past 2012 Playoffs, we can be redundant and say that Kobe the leader of a couple clunker teams that lost in ugly fashion, it happens. It happened to Jordan, too.

Jordan’s accolades aren’t without hardship. He played fifteen seasons, went home in nine of them. He’s lost games despite gargantuan efforts (see his 63 point performance versus the Celtics in 1986), he struggled versus the Pistons the same way that LeBron struggled versus the Celtics, they both kicked the door down in great fashion.

LeBron’s first nine seasons in the NBA don’t overshadow Jordan’s just in that he won a ring, that’s a pointless stat that implies that championships are won by one person. In LeBron’s first nine seasons, he’s been on Jordan’s level in terms of scoring, field goal percentage, shot-blocking and free throw attempts while being superior in rebounding, passing and shooting.

LeBron has already made twice as many threes in nine years than Jordan did in his entire career (917 to 581), his ability to take over a game in every way possible is evidenced by his career averages of 27/7/7 that no one else in NBA history has ever achieved.

Of course, some cynics and skeptics will interpret this as a means of saying LeBron WILL be better than Jordan, that he already IS or even that Jordan is a lesser player, overrated in some ways. No, this is just to say that it’s possible.

Although Jordan transcended the game, there are people who scored more points than him, that won more titles than him, that were more athletic and more all-around better. Oscar Robertson was seemingly the Jordan of his era in terms of build and dominance, who else do you know could average a triple-double for a season? Oh, that’s right, no one.

We’ve seen Kobe’s offensive arsenal prove more well-rounded than Jordan’s, we’ve seen guys come along and put up similar numbers to Jordan with bigger, stronger and faster bodies in LeBron James. It happens, there isn’t anything wrong with it.

One thing that comes with the exaggerated folklore of saying Jordan is seemingly untouchable is the undermining of the fortune he came into when it came to being a Bull.

Scottie Pippen was one of the two or three best small forwards ever, a perimeter defender that doesn’t come along often, if ever again. The same magic Phil Jackson worked with the Bulls in winning six titles in six appearances was worked in Los Angeles with five titles and seven appearances. Dennis Rodman was a Hall of Famer, Toni Kukoc was one of the best foreign players ever, Jordan wasn’t the ONLY constant that contributed to his greatness.

Had it not been for his two years of retirement that saw Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the best centers ever, would Jordan have been 6-6 in the NBA Finals considering Hakeem dominated the very position the Bulls were notoriously weakest? Circumstance can skew perception.

It’s why people harp more on the fact that LeBron lost two NBA Finals and overlook how bad the 2007 Cavaliers were, how he never played with a legitimate All-Star (no, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas don’t count) until 2010, and it’s arguable that Dwyane Wade is declining at this point.

Jordan’s throne probably will go untouched, he may end up being overshadowed. Who is to say that he won’t?

Just as LeBron could just win one or two rings, he could go on a run of three or four titles before he’s 32. Who is to KNOW this won’t happen?

With his blend of scoring, passing, rebounding, elite defense and growing post game, LeBron’s 6’9, 275 pound frame can transcend basketball even more than he already has. He may not be the global icon Jordan was, he likely won’t touch Jordan in terms of “mental toughness”, but that’s somehow become an exaggerated way of claiming one isn’t “clutch”.

LeBron’s had clutch performances before these past playoffs. He hasn’t hit a bunch of game-winners but that’s because he’s contributed where games don’t tend to come down to the last minute when he’s on the court. Alas, why argue clutch when the numbers are the argument that trumps all?

We obsess with Jordan’s six rings because winning is all that matters, when do fans argue Bill Russell as one of the best players ever with an unmatched grit and competitive nature? Because that’s exactly what he was.

Alas, people are too removed that generation to understand that. Some of those same people are too fixated on the legend that comes with Jordan and his greatness, so fixated that they may end up being just as argumentative when someone comes along only to hear how they could never touch the same LeBron people continue to find ways to sell short.

Winners And Losers From Howard Deal

If you have any rooted interest in the NBA, you’ve probably heard about the reported blockbuster trade sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers by now. The trade is sure to shake up the outlook of the upcoming season, as the Lakers will add a three-time Defensive Player of the Year to a core that already included two former MVPs (Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash) and a perennial All-Star (Pau Gasol).

That the Lakers were able to land Howard while giving up only Andrew Bynum is obviously a huge boost to their title chances, at the least in the short term. But with so much set to change in the NBA, it’s worth looking at which teams and players are set to benefit from this trade and who should be shaking their head at the news of this blockbuster.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers

One look at the Lakers’ roster must put the fear of God in most of the NBA’s contenders. In one night, the purple and gold went from being just another solid team in the West to a legitimate title contender, and arguably the favorite to win it all. Behind the most dangerous frontcourt in the league, the Lakers will be a terrifying matchup for the wing-loaded Heat and have added perhaps the only player that can cover up for Nash’s inability to guard the league’s elite point guards.

But time will really tell whether this trade benefits L.A. in the long run; Howard hasn’t committed to extending his contract with the Lakers next offseason, and if he doesn’t, the Lakers just gave up Bynum to rent Howard for a year. Either way, you’d have to say GM Mitch Kupchak pushed the right button here, as getting Howard puts the Lakers in the best position to take advantage of the narrow window they have to contend for a title as Bryant and Nash reach to twilight of their careers.

Loser: Orlando Magic

New Magic Rob Hennigan GM was clearly handed an impossible task when trying to obtain assets in exchange for Howard without any leverage. However, the haul the Magic received in return was perhaps less appetizing than anyone could have expected, especially when there were rumors that Orlando could receive big man Brook Lopez from the Nets.

Instead, the only young player they received that could potentially play a role in their next winning team is Arron Afflalo, who would likely be no more than a role player on any successful team. What’s worse is that they weren’t able to unload Hedo Turkoglu’s massive contract in the deal, and there are reports all three first-round picks the Magic will receive will be protected.

Even without leverage, you’d think the Magic could have gotten more in return for the best defensive player in the league.

Winners: Philadelphia 76ers, Andrew Bynum

The Sixers clearly used savvy management to turn their glut of wing players into the second best center in the league, all while staying under the radar and out of the media spotlight. Philly gave up Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, and a future first-round pick to get Bynum, who clearly has the talent to make them a formidable team in the East and badly needed a change of scenery.

Perhaps the Sixers aren’t a favorite in the East, but Bynum immediately becomes the conference’s best center, and they’ve accumulated enough depth at the wings to try to replace what they’ll lose by giving up Iguodala.

Things couldn’t have worked out much better for Bynum in this deal, as he moves to a promising young team that will now be built around him. He’ll get all the touches he can handle on a playoff team with room for improvement.

Loser: Denver Nuggets

While some will argue that the Nuggets didn’t give up much to get All-Star and defensive stalwart Iguodala, I’m struggling to see how the acquisition fits into their long-term plan. Iguodala isn’t the premier scorer that will put Denver into contention in the West, and his contract over the next three years will be expensive as he drifts into his age 30 season and out of the prime of his career.

After extending JaVale McGee this offseason, the Nuggets will have a great deal of their salary cap invested in McGee and Iguodala, which shouldn’t inspire too much fear among their Western Conference rivals.

Long term, the Nuggets might have been better off preserving their cap flexibility and retaining Afflalo, who has a similar skill set to that of Iguodala.

Winners: Arron Afflalo, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic

We’ve seen how losing a superstar can set back a franchise in Cleveland, and this trade launches Orlando into similar territory. However, the young players involved in this deal must view this as an opportunity to they belong in the NBA.

Afflalo will become perhaps the most potent scorer in Orlando after scoring 15 points per game as a role player for the Nuggets last season, and he will be handed all the minutes and scoring chances he can handle.

Vucevic will be given an opportunity to win the starting center spot as a stretch-five, which he would likely not have on most other teams.

Meanwhile, Harkless’ path to the NBA got a lot smoother by getting out of Philadelphia, a team with plenty of players at his position, and moving to a team that will be more than willing to work with him as a developmental project.

Losers: Jason Richardson, Al Harrington

It’s never a good sign for veterans when they’re used as supplementary pieces in blockbuster trades like these, and unfortunately Richardson and Harrington find themselves in that position. Richardson moves into a crowded wing position in Philly, who added Nick Young and Dorell Wright in the offseasonto compete for shooting guard and small forward minutes alongside Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. At age 31 with four years remaining on his contract, Richardson may struggle to see the same compliment of minutes to which he’s accustomed if the Sixers stick with their young players.

Harrington had carved out a nice niche off the bench in Denver, and while he may not see a dip in minutes with the Magic, the veteran forward will not sniff playoff contention for at least a few years in the midst of Orlando’s rebuilding project.

Loser: San Antonio Spurs

Sure, the Spurs weren’t directly involved in this trade, but their road to title contention just got much tougher with the news of this trade. With their aging core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are clearly built to win now, but the Lakers may have just emphatically shut their window by adding Howard and Nash.

San Antonio might look back at last season as being their last realistic chance at reaching the Finals, and the Spurs will be even more disappointed that they were unable to take advantage of their 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

2012 Team USA Is No Dream Team

We could beat them.

The message was already unmistakably clear as Kobe Bryant quickly began fawning over the MJ-in-his-prime-led 1992 Dream Team, backtracking from any potential media-driven dispute he might have sparked.

Regardless, the message was clear: according to at least one of the leaders on the 2012 Olympic USA basketball team, this year’s squad could have beaten the previously-undisputed greatest Olympic basketball team ever assembled.

Bryant’s actual quote was simple, unassuming, lacking of deep implication. What he said — “I don’t know. It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out,” referencing the current Team USA’s chances at beating the 1992 version — was modest enough, especially by the superstar guard’s standards.

What perpetuated an otherwise-calm statement, aside from Bryant’s well-documented otherworldly competitiveness and penchant for publicly insinuating his alpha dog demeanor and competitive fire, was that the comment probably isn’t far off from the truth.

Assuming “far off” implies earning a silver medal just behind Team USA Dream Team #1, of course.

Bryant represents a sports enigma that has never been duplicated. Never has a player of any sport been so fiercely backed by people on two completely opposite spectrums as Bryant has. While some call it swagger, others call it arrogance. Some say he has a competitive drive unmatched, others pronounce him a loose cannon always on the verge of blaming others. He is called a scorer with a knowledge for when to pass and when to shoot, or a black hole that swallows up possessions mercilessly. Both sides can be debated flawlessly with statistics, reason, or talking-heads’ logic. Regardless, dude wins, and wins often.

As soon as he opened his mouth and gave his Olympic squad unprecedented props at the hands of the 1992 Dream Team, however, he began a game that will ultimately go down in Mr. Bryant’s rarely-touched “L” column.

Perhaps it already has. With Team USA’s “narrow” 80-69 win over Brazil last Monday and an even tighter 86-80 win against Argentina Sunday, any critics who were on the fence upon first hearing Bryant’s statement, myself included, have quickly hopped to the 1992 Dream Team’s side of the metaphorical fence.

That’s not to say Bryant’s statement, as is generally the case in all pro-and-anti-Bryant arguments, isn’t still completely up for legitimate debate in either direction.

The 1992 Dream Team did have an over-the-hill Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, yes. They also had bigger, slower players on the team compared to this year’s current all-star collection. And, of course, the one argument that keeps me from completely believing that the current Olympic squad wouldn’t stand a chance: the athleticism on MJ’s squad was certainly secondary.

That’s no disrespect to “His Airness,” or any of the other Hall-of-Famers on the 1992 squad. But what other Olympic squad in NBA history had a full line-up of players who could not only dunk, but do so well, point-guard-through-center? Aside from Kevin Love (big, but not explosive) and perhaps Chris Paul (too small-in-stature and not explosive enough to bring down the house with a dunk), this Team USA squad is stacked with high-fliers and aerial killers capable of putting nearly every member of the 1992 Dream Team on a poster.

That being said, Kobe’s militia of athletic freaks doesn’t play basketball like MJ’s Hall-of-Famers. From Charles Barkley to Chris Mullin, the real Dream Team was fraught with Springfield immortals, a far cry from this year’s squad. Aside from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Bryant himself, no other player on the roster is a lock for the NBA Hall of Fame. In time, perhaps, but not now. Not in London. Not in 2012.

The modifiers Bryant used in his statement weren’t as far off as Jordan’s mockingly-shocked reaction would indicate. That’s just two of the greatest basketball players of all-time defending their competitive turf. Perhaps Bryant’s squad would beat the H.O.F.-laden 1992 Olympic basketball squad.

But until we see it, could might even be a slight stretch of the imagination for the 2012 squad’s chances at taking down the Dream Team.