SAN ANTONIO — The NBA's coronavirus-condensed schedule has forced teams to make tough decisions about resting key players. The NBA is also fining teams, including the hard-hit San Antonio Spurs, for giving key players the rest they need to perform at a high level and remain healthy.
"As the season goes on, you look at schedule and minutes played, and people need to take a break," coach Gregg Popovich said before his Spurs faced the Suns on Saturday night. "We did this with Dejounte a bit in the past, and these guys need it tonight. They've hit the wall in that sense, so hopefully they'll be a little fresher moving forward."
Those players were DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, and Jakob Poeltl. DeRozan is the driving force and superstar on offense, and since returning to the team after losing his father, he's averaged nearly 35 hard minutes per game. Poeltl had played all 54 games, anchoring the defense and growing into a starting role. Pop still trusts Mills, who averages double-digit scoring off the bench and provides shooting this team often lacks.
The Spurs had lost a tough game the night before, traveled and landed in Phoenix as almost double-digit underdogs against a 40-15 team, and that was before announcing that those three key players would rest.
If you had to pencil in a result for each game on the second-half schedule when it was released, this one could have been an L in sharpie. It's less about the Suns being better, and more about the way the schedule was assembled.
It was San Antonio's fifth game in seven days, part of a schedule with 10 back-to-back sets and no more than a day off after the All Star break. The schedule is that bad because the Spurs had to shut down for a week earlier in the season due to coronavirus, and the league wants to fit all 72 games in before the Olympics because, well, that's the product they sell.
The argument for fining a team for resting players is simple: if you keep stars out, especially on the road, or in nationally televised games, it spoils an otherwise competitive product that could have entertained fans in the arena and watching around the world.
San Antonio was famously fined $250,000 by the late commissioner David Stern after Pop rested the Big Three and Danny Green against the defending-champion Heat in a marquee game in December 2012. It was the fourth game in five nights, the last of a road trip on which the Spurs had gone 5-0.
The NBA sent out a memo earlier this season saying teams would be fined $100,000 for resting players in nationally-televised matchups. The memo also said teams shouldn't rest players on the road, or rest multiple players in the same game.
What about little Jimmy, a hypothetical young Spurs fan in Phoenix who got tickets and now won't see a good game? The truth is he was probably going to see a bad game anyway, and not because of the Spurs' decisions.
Commissioner Adam Silver and the players agreed on the structure of this unprecedented season, but the timeframe is tightening because of coronavirus cancellations earlier in the year, and it's diluting the product of each game and leading to concerns about player health beyond just fatigue.
Stars like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have all missed over 10 games. Donovan Mitchell suffered a scary ankle injury that turned out to be a sprain.
Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray had missed four games to rest a sore right knee. At the very end of his return game against the Warriors, his left leg buckled as he tore his ACL.
It sparked a discussion about the safety of the schedule, the wear-and-tear on all of these players and the reasons for it. The Toronto Raptors were also fined for resting guys, and star guard Fred VanVleet had something to say in the wake of it.
"I mean, to be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I've ever been a part of," he said in part. "Just from the whole league and rushing the season back, it's pretty much all about business this year on every level. And it's hard to hide it now."
"I can sit up and complain about the NBA all I want to, but I'm a part of it," he said. "I'm directly profiting off of it. We did vote on what season we wanted. They gave a few options, and I think, for the most part, most of the players picked this option, so we're in it, you know what I mean? Which is why I can't complain about it. But I can point out that this is what it is and the pros and cons that come with that. It's very conflicting."
The plan for this season removed teams from the coronavirus-free bubble that earned Silver praise in the early months of the pandemic. Keeping players away from their families for a whole season wasn't really an option, but travel introduced a much higher risk for COVID. The league set protocols to cancel games and limit infections, but they didn't achieve enough wiggle room for the schedule.
As such, the compressed schedule is putting extra pressure on teams to both compete for a playoff spot and make sure their best players make it there healthy. A few months after that six-figure fine, the Spurs were back in Miami for the 2013 NBA Finals.
Injuries to key players are bad business for the NBA as a whole, but even worse for the individual person and team involved. The league has a few dozen All Star players, but individual teams are lucky to have one or two. The league can survive injuries to individual stars, but many teams can't.
The Raptors rested VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and other key players, and they beat the Spurs and Magic. They didn't need those players to compete and indeed win, and they still got fined.
It's admittedly a little different with the Spurs, who decided to rest their guys on the road against a team that is vying for the top spot in the West, but it was the schedule-makers who stacked the deck against San Antonio.
Pop decided that rather than run DeMar and the others ragged with a bad hand, he'd bet low and focus on development while those players got the rest they need. The Spurs could have easily listed them out with vague injuries to avoid all this, but the fact that they didn't sent a message about the importance of rest to Silver.
If the Spurs threw in the towel before the game, they threw it in the face of their opponent to disorient them and make the fight a bit more fair.
The undersized and undrafted Drew Eubanks got the start at center against a No. 1 pick in Deandre Ayton, a physical beast he played against in college. However, it was Eubanks who set the tone physically and won the matchup inside.
The Spurs held Phoenix's illustrious backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker to just 21 points on 9-28 shooting. The bench unit clicked as Gorgui Dieng and Devin Vassell played for the first time in a bit, and Vassell finished with a career-high 18 points. Rudy Gay led the team with 19.
On short rest, the Spurs came into Phoenix, gave their guys the rest they needed, and completely dominated one of the league's hottest teams by a score of 111-85.
Little Jimmy saw a good game after all, and the decision to rest DeRozan and Poeltl should help his favorite team as they continue to compete for the playoffs in the final four weeks of this compressed marathon of a season. Still, the prudent decision was punished by the league that had far more control over the circumstances than the team did.
Based on the replies to the initial tweet, it was a decision that didn't play well with fans.
The Spurs had their priorities right Saturday night in Phoenix, even if the NBA is still grappling with its own.