Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The power of teamwork

Under the hand of David Stern, the NBA has become a star-driven league. After years of living on the margins of the sporting public, the NBA exploded with the introduction of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird following their battle in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game.

The dramatic rise in ratings and television rights fees (and the appearance of some kid from North Carolina named Michael Jordan) made the owners of NBA franchises rich - very rich. And it also turned professional basketball from something resembling a team sport to a glorified one-on-one game with players chucking up shots from all over the court.

An NBA season is 82 mind-numbing games. And, at the end of that marathon stretch, 16 out of 30 teams "qualify" for the play-offs. That's fully 53% of the league. It makes you wonder just what the purpose of playing 82 games is if more than half the league goes on to the post-season tournament.

Up until 1969 major league teams played either 154 or 162 games after which only one team from each league advanced to the World Series. The purpose of the long season was to winnow out the pretenders and determine just who the best team in the league was. Of course the baseball postseason has been watered down over the years to the point that teams that can't even win their own division get to play some extra baseball.

Trying to schedule all those games is a hassle and some teams seem to get hit harder by the scheduling bug than others. Teams on road trips face the dreaded back-to-backs periodically over the course of the season. Last week the San Antonio Spurs - the textbook definition of a "team" - found themselves in the hot seat.

In 1996, Greg Popovich took over as coach of the Spurs. Over the past 16 years, Coach Popovich has created a squad that puts the needs of the team over the desires of the individual players. When David Robinson was reaching the end of his career he gladly accepted a supporting role as Tim Duncan became the new star. Now that Tim Duncan is reaching the end of his career, he has also accepted more of a supporting role. And the reason these Spurs haven't tried hanging on as long as they can is Greg Popovich.

Greg Popovich is the very antithesis of David Stern. While Stern wants style and flash and drama, Popovich wants stability and teamwork. It all came to a head last week when the Spurs were wrapping up a seven-game roadtrip. After playing five games in seven days, Popovich sent his stars back to San Antonio for some  rest and relaxation and sent out his B team to play the defending league champions, the Miami Heat.

Why did he do it? To preserve his big guns for later in the season. With better than half the league making the playoffs there isn't much danger of San Antonio missing the show. The game against Miami didn't mean anything. Popovich didn't want his stars to risk injury in a meaningless game so he sent them home.

David Stern decided this just wouldn't do. How dare a coach rest his stars on a game on national television? How dare a coach make a decision with the long-run in mind? Mr. Stern decided he couldn't stand for such tactics and he fined the Spurs $250,000.

Or maybe he was just pissed that the San Antonio subs almost beat Lebron James and company - dropping the game 105-100. Just what does that tell you about the power of teamwork?

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