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Popovich, Stern could have handled roster flap much better


POSTED: Dec 4, 2012 8:30 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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Gregg Popovich's choice to rest four of his starters in Miami was a multi-faceted issue.

I am hurt.
A plague a' both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing?
-- Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene I

Talk about a made-for-TV event.

Actually, I guess, it was a made-not-for-TV event.

Gregg Popovich's decision to send a third of his roster, including his three best players, home before the Spurs' game Thursday in Miami has provided a grateful faux outrage industry with hours and hours of programming.

How dare Popovich not play Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green! Even though most non-die hard fans would run to the other side of their respective states before watching those players execute a zipper play.

How dare David Stern inject himself into a coach's decisions on who plays and doesn't play? Who does he think he is, the Commissioner?

And now comes the point where you want me to blast Popovich, or blast Stern. One must take a side here and destroy the other person as being tone deaf and power-hungry. Nuance is what happens when your uncle remarries. (Speak it out, slowly. You'll get it.)

In our talk radio society, two things cannot possibly be true at the same time. Thus, Popovich and Stern couldn't both be viewed as being correct, making their respective decisions with good reason: Popovich protecting his aging players, Stern protecting his product, ending with a $250,000 fine against the Spurs.

Someone must be wrong! It's the rules!

GameTime: Spurs Fined by NBA

The truth is, both Pop and the Commish made this much worse than it needed to be. Either could have made the points he was trying to make and preserved his sway over his domain, well short of defrauding the paying public or boxing oneself into a corner before Thursday's Spurs-Heat game was even played. (Think about this: what if the Spurs had pulled out that game? They were up five with two minutes to go. How could Stern issue "substantial sanctions" against a team that won the game?)

There are so many issues. Let's take them one at a time:

1. It does not matter what time of the season it was when Popovich did it.

I got a lot of tweets saying that Popovich was wrong to do what he did not because it was wrong, but because it was still November, and not April, when teams normally pull this kind of thing -- and when fans expect it and can plan accordingly.

I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous.

This is the same brain-dead thinking that leads to people saying that referees should swallow their whistles in the last five seconds of a game because, you know, let the players decide the game. (The illogic of that sentence is still breathtaking after all these years; of course, by not calling a foul in the last five seconds, you are letting the players decide the game -- just not by playing the game.)

It's never going to be right to sit three or four marquee players at the same time -- not in November, not in February, not in April -- if you care at all about the fans. Are tickets cheaper in April than they are in November?

Michael Jordan famously said that he was always aware that every time he took the court, there was probably someone in the stands who had never seen him play before, and who might never see him play again after that evening. He said he owed that person his best effort. It doesn't mean he played great every night, of course; it only means he tried to, and that's all anyone can expect.

Yet it is not Popovich's job to care about the fans, and I don't say that pejoratively. He is paid to win basketball games. He is judged by whether his team competes for championships. And from that strategic point of view, it is not only logical to rest players in a game that is going to be extremely difficult to win anyway, it is intelligent to do so, to live to fight another day.

"It's up to the coach to decide who he plays and why, and not generate revenue," said a general manager on Sunday who supported Popovich's decision. "What if they suited up and he didn't play them? Or if it were vs. Golden State on a Monday night? Pop's focus is on long-term winning. Stern's is on revenue and perception. Different agendas. I'd easily go with Pop on this one."

The problem is that Pop isn't operating in a vacuum; NBA games aren't played in a studio. There are actual people who work hard at their jobs, and arrange for baby sitters, and who pay big bucks for parking, hot dogs and beers and expect to get the most bang for their dollar. All of us -- me, Tim Duncan, Pop, Joey Crawford -- are employed because fans pay good money to watch NBA games in person, or to watch on television.

The vast majority of people who attend NBA games are season ticket holders, or have the tickets of season ticket holders. Most season ticket holders buy their tickets months before the start of the next season; teams demand people pony up so they know exactly much cash is on hand when their fiscal year begins. So that large pool of NBA fans doesn't have the luxury of picking games a la carte.

And walk-up customers normally do not have a limitless stash of disposable income to spend on tickets. When they have the money, they buy the tickets, so planning for a particular team or time may not work for them. They often go see who they can see when they can see them.

The Spurs, for example, are in Denver on April 10. It will be their last visit during the regular season. If Popovich decided that morning that he wanted to give his four starters a rest and sent them home, would that be acceptable because the regular season ends a week later? Explain to the family of four who drove in from Nebraska that they should have "expected" the Spurs could do something like this. Didn't you check the calendar? What kind of message is that to send to casual fans -- the last month of the season is exhibition season?

"Can you imagine if the situation was reversed, and on the Heat's only trip to a Western Conference city the coach sent home LeBron, Wade and Bosh?," asked a general manager who supported Stern's decision.

Moreover, this assumes that there are times of the year, and games (and cities) that are not as "important" as others. So many people said, 'Well, Popovich could have rested them in Washington or Orlando.' Do people not work hard in D.C. and Orlando? Do they not have kids who wanted to see the Spurs? Look, I work for TNT and I want TNT to have the best games possible on Thursday. But, that doesn't mean it's okay to give the Wizards' and Magic's fan bases the shaft on Monday and Wednesday because their teams aren't as good as the Heat.

"David was speaking for the guy who bought a courtside seat for $1,500, but the Heat said 'uh-uh, it's the Spurs -- $2,500," a team executive opined Sunday night, referring to the variable pricing most teams use to jack up prices on the marquee games.

2. This was about double-sided hubris.

Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and the Spurs are justifiably proud of the organization they've built over two-plus decades, even as they're completely aware how lucky they've been to have drafted David Robinson and Tim Duncan No. 1 overall. They are proud that their players don't cause off-court trouble, because of the no-BS culture that permeates their building, in which winning is desired but being professional is sacrosanct.

They are proud that so many people have come through the organization in the last few years to become coaches (Scott Brooks, Vinny Del Negro and Jacque Vaughn, to name a few) and executives (Sam Presti, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry, Lance Blanks and Rob Hennigan, to name a few more). The "Spurs Way" has become the way of the NBA.

And if you don't think that hasn't created just a bit of ego in South Texas, you're naïve in the extreme.

Popovich could have rested Duncan (as he did last season, with the infamous listing "DNP-Old"). He could have rested Parker or Ginobili, or Parker and Green, or Green and Ginobili, or Duncan and Ginobili. No one would have batted an eye at any of those decisions. It was only benching all four, and sending all four home early, that got the league's attention -- and Popovich knew full well it would get the league's attention. He just didn't care. Which is his right ... but you can't also be surprised that the NBA wouldn't cotton to that.

Said a GM who backed Popovich's call: "I felt he should have taken them to Miami and just sat them. It happens all the time in baseball. It happens at the end of the year when teams are preparing for playoffs in the NBA."

I know the Spurs were chafing, well before Thursday's game, about the unprecedented early-season road trip they were on. It ended with a fourth game in five nights against the defending (and well-rested) champions. They, of course, have the notorious "Rodeo Trip" in February that usually straddles the All-Star break, but no one could recall a trip this long this early in the season. And, like many elite teams, the Spurs aren't fans of a schedule that frequently has them playing a marquee game either on Thursday (on TNT) or Friday (on ESPN) as the second half of a back-to-back.

"If the NBA is concerned," another exec said, "it shouldn't have scheduled [the Spurs] five in seven and back-to-back, while Miami sat at home."

On the other side, you have Stern. Do I really have to detail to you how he has lorded over the league for nearly three decades? How he has micromanaged people in the league office, on teams, at the television networks, on Capitol Hill? It is his league. He said no to trades while the NBA owned the Hornets because he did not like them; he makes no apologies for All-Star Weekend turning into a festival for the league's corporate sponsors.

Was Stern looking out for fans (all eight of them) who may have bought tickets in Miami to see the Spurs' stars in person? Sure. Was he angry that one of his television partners was suddenly looking at a less-than-compelling matchup, that the casual fan in, say, North Carolina may not be as interested in? Yes. Was he reacting to Popovich's well-placed finger? You bet.

But at the base of all of that was this: You don't do this to me.

The Commish doesn't have a vendetta against the Spurs. What he does have is an itchy trigger finger for anyone who gets out of line, and a willingness to make a public example out of teams and individuals who buck his authority.

I don't have direct info (yet) on this, but it is my severe intuition that Stern or someone in the league may well have gotten an earful from someone in San Antonio well before Thursday about the punishing early-season road trip, and how the Spurs were unhappy about it in the extreme. Wouldn't that explain why Stern's rapid response to what Popovich did Thursday was so very rapid? He knew it was coming.

But it doesn't mean he was right to jump so fast into the fray.

Imagine if he had waited until after the game to issue a statement that read, in part, "We are aware of the Spurs' decision not to play several of their players, and are troubled by the absence of those players both for our fans in Miami that paid to see them and for our national television audience that expected to watch them. We will address the issue directly with the Spurs' management on Friday. In the meantime, we congratulate both teams for performing at a high level under unusual circumstances, further showing that there is no such thing as a 'sure thing' on any night in the NBA."

The resulting fine would have been viewed quite differently under those circumstances.

And the Commish knows full well that the Competition Committee discussed the issue of resting players during the regular season last summer, but couldn't figure out a suitable penalty. That's because it's not an easy issue.

3. Please don't act like you care about the Spurs all of a sudden.

This was what chapped me the most about this "controversy:" The righteous indignation among some that by sending his marquee players home early, Popovich was depriving a star-obsessed nation its expected date with the footwork of Duncan, Parker's teardrop floater and Ginobili's whirling-dervish game.

America hasn't given a damn about any of that for a decade.

You've clowned Duncan as being unhip and a nerd. You didn't watch any of the four Finals series in which San Antonio took part; they were among the lowest rated in history. You don't buy Spurs jerseys or the shoes that they sell, and please don't talk to me about how they deserve to be shunned because they don't like doing media. Neither do Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett or Dirk Nowitzki. You know who likes doing media? Guys that don't play like doing media.

The Spurs, as I've only written a thousand times or so over the years, are as model a franchise as the Celtics or Lakers. They do everything the right way, on and off the court. They have been lucky in the way all of us should be so lucky; they've worked their butts off, and amazingly, they seem to get even luckier. As Parker said just a month ago, he took less money when he became a free agent to re-sign with the Spurs because he believes Popovich will take care of him when his playing days are done.

Inside Trax: Spurs vs. Heat

The remaining nine Spurs embodied everything about the franchise when they took the court against Miami: Those assorted Nando de Colos, Tiago Splitters and Gary Neals didn't mail it in. They competed and outplayed the defending champs, and only a three by Ray Allen off a scrambled, loose ball situation in the final seconds gave Miami the lead. Popovich yelled and screamed at them just as he yells and screams at Duncan. Nothing changed.

Yet the casual fan has been impressed by none of that over the years. The Spurs should be celebrated; they have been ignored. You made your choice; you care about the SuperFriends and the Lakers and the Knicks, and that's fine. But you can't be outraged that you didn't get to see the Spurs, too. You've had chances to see them for 15 years.

4. The NBA must, must do something about its schedule.

It's a puzzlement, as the King of Siam said in The King and I.

Both TNT and the Four-Letter Network are paying major coin for the best teams and games, and there are only a certain number of each every season. Adding another couple of games to the Thursday schedule would ease the scheduling crunch throughout the season for other teams. But for those marquee teams like Miami, OKC and the Lakers -- which both networks want -- they're going to play a lot of games in that Wednesday-Thursday-Friday window, which necessitates back-to-backs. (I dunno: the Spurs, Lakers and Heat seem to, somehow, muddle through, year after year, with this grossly unfair schedule, and chalk up their usual 50-60 wins.)

Of course the league is not going to cut back on the 82-game regular season. But it could do something about scheduling. It could reduce the ridiculous and unwatchable exhibition season from its current three-plus weeks to one week, which is all the preseason anybody wants or needs to see. That would give the league another 14 or so days to schedule its 82 games.

Yes, that would mean the regular season would open up against the baseball playoffs. There are tradeoffs. A few lower-rated games at the start of the regular season might well mean a healthier team at the end of the regular season. Or, it may not do that at all. But it would be worth it to find out.

Now that we've straightened all that out ... Tim Tebow or Greg McElroy -- who ya got?

DRIBBLES

And to think that until Thursday, the big story in San Antonio was Tim Duncan's obvious deal with the devil. How else to explain the 36-year-old's continued excellence, long past the normal expiration date for elite players?

Yet there was Duncan Saturday night, well-rested (natch) and going up against Memphis' bruising frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, dropping another 27 and 15 on the Grizzlies, dunking on Gasol's bean, making 11 of 17 shots and looking again like what he is -- one of the best big men ever. No, he's not ever going to catch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone in scoring, or Wilt Chamberlain in rebounds. But if Duncan's not on your short list, get a new one.

And in a season that was overshadowed last week by the Popovich Gambit, Duncan's start has given San Antonio reason to believe it will again be a favorite in the West -- two years after Tony Parker said the Spurs were on their last legs and had one more shot at a fifth championship. But San Antonio has to actually finish the job this time around. Last season they wasted a 20-game win streak that straddled the end of the regular season and the first two-plus rounds of the playoffs, melting down against the Thunder in the Western Conference finals.

"It's there -- and so are the other many years when we thought we had an opportunity, and we didn't," Duncan said last week. "It is what it is. You play long enough, you win some, you lose some, and you get your heart broken sometimes. We had a great run. Luckily enough we started well [this season] and we think we can make another push at it."

Block of the Night

Duncan, who signed a three-year extension last summer that will almost certainly allow him to retire as a "Spur for Life," as he puts it, has been able to excel. Popovich, once again, is making sure Duncan is as well rested as possible. He's averaging 18.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in a little more than 31 minutes a night, and he's shooting almost 54 percent, which would be the highest field-goal percentage he's shot in six years. And Popovich made it clear before last Thursday that nothing was going to change his approach to making sure Duncan is ready for the playoffs.

"There will be times this year when we sit him in back-to-backs," Popovich said. "Just because his condition and his age doesn't change. It seems like it has for some magical reason, some strange elixir that he's found, that he and Kevin Garnett have found, nobody else, maybe Jason [Kidd]. But he was like this last year. I thought he was an All-Star last year. I thought that was an omission. And this year he's our most solid player."

He's had to be more than that, with Manu Ginobili slow to get back in form, Parker a tick off of his All-Star form from last season and San Antonio suffering injuries to starter Kawhi Leonard and key reserve Stephen Jackson.

The fundamentals, of course, are still there. But Duncan is quick again -- not explosive; he never was -- but quick, able to get where he wants. The angles that he's played better than anyone in his generation are again there for him. The basketball court, again, is his chessboard.

"His work ethic and his professionalism, and him taking care of his body, it's not really surprising to anybody in this locker room," guard Gary Neal said. "Because we've seen him put the work in, coming in in the morning and getting his shots up, things like that. In this profession you get what you put in. Tim's been putting into the bank for years."

Much has been made of Duncan's weight loss the last couple of summers. (It's not like he was really out of shape, but every pound your joints don't have to carry helps.) But the real story of the last two summers is that Duncan's chronic left knee troubles subsided. And that's allowed him to get back in the lab during the summer.

Duncan couldn't do that in '09 and '10, and while he never complained about the knee -- the great ones never do, of course -- he looked like an aging star instead of an injured one. His production dropped. Popovich realized, a) that he couldn't run his offense through Duncan exclusively anymore and pushed Parker to take more of a leading offensive role, and b) his team had to score more in transition as its defensive aces aged and rules changes made it harder to defend without fouling.

"Mentally, I thought I could still do it at a certain level," Duncan said. "Physically, I just couldn't do it. But to continue to work at it, and actually feel like I can play the way I think I can, even at this point in my career, it feels good."

That only happened after Duncan's knee came around.

Duncan's Nice Night

"My pain level's down a whole lot," Duncan said. "I found something that works with my brace (he sported a "Punisher" brace during last season) and the treatments, and everything else. I'm just feeling good. Healthwise, I feel real good."

His offseason discipline dovetails with the work he's been able to put in.

"I kind of change my diet in the summer more than anything in season," he said. "I'm active enough (during the season) and I can burn enough calories there. In the summers, I just cut back on my sugars, breads, all that stuff. And I changed my workout regimen a little bit. I really focused on staying in the gym and working on my game and trying to get my rhythm back in that respect."

With Duncan on point, the Spurs can get back to the business of trying to get the taste of their last two playoff implosions out of their collective gullet.

The Spurs entered the 2011 playoffs as the top seed in the West and had a 61-21 record, but eighth-seeded Memphis stunned them. Last spring, the Spurs went on the kind of roll that almost always winds up with a championship.

They won their last 10 regular season games, smoking the Lakers twice. They swept Utah in the first round. They swept the Clippers in the second round. And they blew out the Thunder in the first two games of the Western Conference finals, putting on a passing clinic. They'd won 20 straight and not only looked like the best team in basketball in 2012, but one of the best teams of all time.

And then...

"It stings," reserve Matt Bonner said.

OKC's sweep of the next four games, beating an increasingly bewildered Spurs team that turned the ball over and didn't do any of the things that had made them unbeatable -- "Identity theft," as Popovich puts it -- is always close to the front of the Spurs' thoughts. It's a title that got away from an organization that doesn't have too many more at-bats.

"I kind of agree with Pop, but at the same time I just think Oklahoma just played great basketball at the right time," Parker said. "'Cause when I looked at The Finals, [James] Harden and [Serge] Ibaka, they didn't play the same way. When they played against us, Ibaka went, what, 11 for 11, 12 for 12? And he only did that one time, and that was in Game 4. That was the game I thought we could have won."

Duncan more than held his own at the end of that series, scoring 21 points in Game 4, adding 18 points and 12 boards in Game 5 and 25 and 14 in Game 6. And he's picked up where he left off this season. His fierce pride has always been under the surface (as is everything else with all but his closest friends).

"He's one of the most competitive people that I've ever met in my life," Bonner said. "Whether it's Scrabble, it doesn't matter, he's coming at you."

Said Neal: "He's not a big emotional guy, he's not a rah-rah, screamer-type guy, but he's extremely competitive when he steps on the lines. He goes out to win every game, and to dominate his position."

Spurs vs. Celtics

And he's doing it at an age that is unusual, but isn't unprecedented. Malone averaged 25.5 a game for Utah at age 36; Garnett, a fierce rival of Duncan's throughout their respective careers, is also on a minutes limit in Boston, and is also producing at a significant level. (Duncan doesn't care much for Garnett, and the feeling is mutual, but teammates say he gets up for games against Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and Utah's Al Jefferson, both of whom he also respects.)

But there's no "I told you so" in his play.

"He's never talked in those terms," Popovich said. "He's never needed to show anybody anything. He doesn't even really talk to me anymore. We've been married so long, half of the things I say he doesn't hear, and the other half he tunes out if he did hear it, because he figures it's [BS]. Manu's getting to that point. Tony's close, too, I guess."

Popovich has famously said he's in San Antonio as long as Duncan is, and they'll leave together. They will be stuck with one another, it appears, a little longer than we all thought. The window remains open. As long as Duncan's knee holds, so does San Antonio's hope of one more run. They're building, again, toward May and June.

"We know we have February where there's going to be a lot of road games, too," Duncan said. "We know it's a long season. It's not going to be as short a season as it was last year. We're dealing with a couple of injuries right now and that kind of changes things a little bit, but all in all, we're heading in the right direction. We're heading toward where we want to be."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parentheses; last week's rankings in brackets)

1) Miami. (2-0) [1]: This is where I argue with the sabrematricians. Ray Allen's defensive numbers are terrible, I suppose. But Ray Allen has hit three game-winning shots for the Heat in a month. Is he carrying his weight, or not? I say yea.

2) Oklahoma City (4-0) [2]: Thunder's defense has done the tighten-up in the last week: 85 points allowed per game in four games, on 37.5 percent shooting.

Grizzles vs. Spurs

3) San Antonio (3-1) [4]: Spurs have beaten the Grizzlies five straight times since losing to them in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, including Saturday's overtime win at AT&T Center.

4) Memphis (3-1) [2]: Still the league's top defense in points allowed and defensive efficiency.

5) N.Y. Knicks. (3-1) [6]: Knicks on longest home win streak to start a season (seven straight at MSG after Sunday's win over Phoenix) in 20 years, per The Associated Press.

6) Brooklyn (3-1) [7]: Nets have had two cracks at the Heat in Miami, and have come up waaaaay short.

7) Atlanta (1-1) [5]: Hawks' six-game win streak, which ended Friday against Cleveland, was the team's longest since the start of the 2010-11 season

8) L.A. Clippers (2-1) [8]: Billups returns to the lineup, and I suspect the Clippers return to being a consistent halfcourt team that could be a major problem for the rest of the west in the playoffs.

9) Golden State (2-0) [15]: Yes, those would be the Warriors in first place in the Pacific Division. Yes, the Mayans have us all checking out on Dec. 21st.

10) L.A. Lakers (1-2) [9]: What was that Sunday night? Allowing 40 fourth-quarter points to the Magic? The Lakers made Nic Vucevic look like Bill Walton: the Mountain Man from Montenegro! And, um, Pau Gasol sat again. Y'all can say there's nothing there, but once may be coincidence. Twice is a trend.

11) Boston (1-2) [10]: Doc calls his team "soft" after the Rajon Rondo-Kris Humphries scuffle Wednesday. Doesn't Kenyon Martin seem more and more like a necessity rather than a luxury?

12) Philadelphia (2-1) [12]: With Bynum on the shelf until who knows when, the 76ers are suddenly quite dependent on Kwame Brown's post defense for the foreseeable future.

13) Chicago (2-1) [13]: Bulls better hope Rip Hamilton isn't going to be laid up for any significant period of time; they don't have many credible bodies these days on the bench.

14) Utah (2-2) [NR]: Jazz haven't lost at home (6-0), haven't done squat on the road (3-9).

15) Milwaukee (2-2) [NR]: Bucks, already in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, get back perimeter D stalwart Luc Mbah a Moute Saturday for the first time this season.

Dropped out: Denver, Charlotte

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Oklahoma City (4-0): Per Elias, the Thunder won all four games last week by at least 12 points, the first time that franchise has done that since it was in Seattle in 2004.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

Sacramento (0-3): Kings' compass has decidedly turned south, with Ls in nine of the last 11, and the locals calling for GM Geoff Petrie's head, while the Maloofs keep egging on the good folks of Virginia Beach, Va., with talk of relocating there to a publicly funded arena. (That will not be a proposed move supported by a whole lot of owners. Trust me.)

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

If colleges are heading toward four football-dominant conferences to form the core of the BCS, shouldn't the Big East and ACC combine the best of what they have left to create a basketball superpower?

I know this is a pro hoops column, but watching the colleges over the past couple of years contort themselves into pretzels to stay viable has been troubling. And living in D.C., I've experienced the best of both conferences for decades, watching Big East showdowns at the old Capital Centre and Verizon Center, and ACC showdowns at Maryland's Cole Field House and, now, Comcast Center. And it's a shame to watch them both struggle to stay relevant these days.

It's all about football, of course, and the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 have all feathered their nests, leaving the Big East and ACC at the altar, no longer relevant when it comes to the national championship picture with the four-team playoff system coming online in 2014. The latest movement has Maryland leaving the ACC and Rutgers leaving the Big East to go to the incorrectly named Big Ten in 2014.

Currently, the ACC has 12 teams, having just agreed to bring in Louisville, reportedly in 2014, to replace Maryland, with Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse on line to come into the conference in the next couple of years, making the total number of teams 15. That would leave the ACC one team short of the 16-team mega-conference size that seems to be what all the majors are heading toward.

But the ACC isn't on the level of the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 or Big 12 in football. Florida State is the conference's current power, but the Seminoles can't be happy being the best team in a mediocre football conference (and neither are their fans and boosters, apparently).

So why not let Florida State leave?

And, for that matter, why not let Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami go, too? (I don't mean let them go for nothing; if the fee for leaving is $50 million, the conference and those schools would certainly have to work something out. But I'm not an expert on those kinds of matters.) Those are the four schools that have football history and ambitions to compete at the highest level, but the ACC isn't anywhere close to the highest level. Who knows if the SEC or Big Ten would want to add any of those teams, but I can't imagine the SEC wouldn't embrace one of those Florida schools, along with Clemson, which already has a spirited rivalry with fellow Palmetto State-school South Carolina.

Anyway, if the ACC let those four schools leave -- or bought them out, or negotiated their exit, whatever -- it would be left with Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Boston College, Louisville, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse -- 11 schools, all of which play football, but none of whom can realistically aspire to compete for a national title in it.

That would allow the ACC to add at least three more schools, and as many as five. I would humbly suggest five, and make them Connecticut, Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova and Providence -- all longtime basketball schools with tradition and capabilities of making long runs in the NCAA Tournament.

Just think of the possibilities of a new ACC with those schools. Think about annual Duke vs. Georgetown matchups, or UConn-Carolina. Those are all college basketball royalty, brand names that don't need any marketing or selling to television audiences -- or TV networks that would pay major coin to broadcast those marquee games. It would make the ACC, without question or debate, the best basketball conference in the country -- and that kind of clarity should be worth billions in television money.

But bringing those schools in wouldn't impact the most historic rivalries of individual schools, like Duke-Carolina or Georgetown-Syracuse. It would keep Tobacco Road intact, while adding the I-95 corridor from D.C. up through New York. You'd preserve the Catholic basketball tradition that was the basis of the original Big East, while keeping travel reasonable -- no Boise State and SMU trips for "Big East" schools.

This would effectively be the end of the Big East, of course, with a handful of schools left to scramble to find new homes, and that's never a pleasant thing. But the new ACC would have incredible reach. Imagine the ACC tournament at Madison Square Garden, or the new Barclays Center!

But this is all about necessity. If the ACC and Big East don't act soon, they're going to be picked to pieces. This move would ensure survival, preserve rivalries and create must-see, appointment television in a 600-channel universe -- TV that TV networks would pay top dollar to show. Maybe not football dollars, but you're not going to get that money, anyway.

Go all in for hoops!

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER

You weigh in on The Stern Business. From Ian Grotenhuis:

Popovich won Coach of the Year last year, for cryin' out loud! He is not reckless or spiteful, but is calculating and strategic (and I'm not even from Texas or a Spurs fan). A coach is supposed to do what he/she feels is best for the team, and that is exactly what Popovich did. So how can he possibly be punished for abiding by the job description, especially when he has a renowned track record of success? Aren't commissioners held accountable by the owners of the teams within that league? If I were Peter Holt (owner) I would be furious if the commissioner punished my team or coach for a decision that would enhance the preservation and longevity of my superstars. I get the fact that it was a nationally televised game. And for the whiners who are complaining about it, the game was still close! I'm sure the Miami fans would rather see a close win by their home team over a superstar-less Spurs than a loss (which easily could have happened had Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili actually played). If I were Pop and got fined by the commish for a decision I thought was in the best interest of my team, I would walk away immediately and tell the commish that since he's telling me how to do my job, he can just coach the team.

Of all your points, the one involving Holt, who was the key negotiator on the owners' side during the lockout, is the one that is the most intriguing to me.

Take a hike, eh. From Marshall Tann:

Why does it feel like established talent neglects Toronto? Taxes? Cold?

I don't think the tax issue is a disqualifier, Marshall; all these guys are wealthy enough to be able to hire smart tax guys who could help them in that area. The weather could be an issue for some. But I think the main problem is lack of success over the last decade. It's been a long time since Vinsanity was in full flower. And if you remember, the Raptors didn't have trouble attracting and retaining solid players (Jerome Williams, Alvin Williams, Antonio Davis, etc.) when they were contenders.

A double standard on a triple? From Johannes Seidl-Schulz:

Dwight's Three & Interview

I just saw Dwight Howard sinking his 3-pointer against the Nuggets ... And I thought, they would have Bynum killed for that! Is this the fact that he hit it? Or that it was Dwight? Obviously they were also making fun of the opponent, which is often very criticized as unsportsmanship. Yet, it's OK, when Dwight does it. The journalists still show Dwight as the Fun Guy, Bynum as the immature, hurt guy and McGee as the stupid guy (I mean you don't have to show a messed up dunk in the highlights, but with McGee, they do it ...). I don't know how much of that image is really true or just a created, journalistic image (shouldn't they just describe the reality?)

Well, there was 10 seconds left in the game, Johannes, and the Lakers were comfortably ahead. You may quibble with whether it's good form to do such a thing when you have the game in hand. But when Bynum took his infamous three and got benched at Golden State last year, it was early in the second half of a six-point game. There was a qualitative difference. But, if your larger point is that the media sometimes falls into laziness and relies on existing narrative when it comes to reporting on people, I couldn't agree more. It's a failing of ours.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and recycling uses for your losing Powerball tickets (drink coaster? Mug cozy? Or something like this?) to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(Last week's averages in parentheses)

1) LeBron James (22 ppg, 9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 548 FG, .583 FT): Just wouldn't let them lose a game they tried to give away to the Pop-shortened Spurs Thursday.

2) Kevin Durant (25 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, .607 FG, .897 FT): Assist/turnover ratio of 3.8 (19/5) the last five games, after 1.5 A/T ratio (27/18) in the previous five games.

3) Kobe Bryant (29.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, .414 FG, .893 FT): Needs 52 points to join the 30,000-point club, which currently has but four members: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan.

4) Carmelo Anthony (29.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 2 apg, .446 FG, .767 FT): Says he can't remember last year. Well, there was a guy named Jeremy, and a coach you couldn't stand, and a fire extinguisher in Miami ... stop me if any of this starts sounding familiar.

5) Tim Duncan (18.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 2.7 bpg, .641 FG, 1,000 FT): Also shooting 77.5 percent from the free-throw line, which would be his highest percentage since he hit 79.5 percent of his tosses 11 years ago, in 2001-02.

BY THE NUMBERS

Bucks vs. Bulls

27 -- Third-quarter deficit that the Bucks overcame on Monday to defeat the Bulls in Chicago. Milwaukee trailed 78-51 with 2:49 left in the third before finishing the game on an improbable 42-14 run, playing with reserves against Chicago's starters down the stretch.

3 -- Proposed arena designs for a new building in Seattle that would be home for a relocated NBA team, released last week by developer Chris Hansen, who is looking to buy an existing team and move it to Seattle.

5 -- NBA teams for veteran swingman Mickael Pietrus, who signed last week with Toronto after waiting for the perfect offer for the first month of the season.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) Count me in for "Satisfaction Guaranteed Night" in Phoenix Thursday night! You come to Suns-Mavs (also, ahem, shown on TNT at 10:30 p.m. EST) at USAirways Center, and you don't have a good time, the Suns will give you your money back. Now that's a confident 7-11 team.

2) It's only been a month, and there is a lot of basketball to be played, but the Thunder's gotten off to a pretty decent start without James Harden, wouldn't you say?

Sasha McHale Essay

3) I am proud to work for TNT, because I think in all the important areas, my company does things the right way. And I am extremely proud that we have someone as immensely humane and talented as Ernie Johnson working for us. EJ's weekly brilliance is so expected we can take it for granted. We never should. The place doesn't work without him. And this is just a taste of his greatness.

4) The Wiz win! Let's not talk any more tonight; let's just enjoy the moment.

5) I hear Ricky Rubio looked pretty good Sunday in his first practice for Minnesota since tearing his ACL last March. He passed the ball as well as ever, and also stuck his nose in defensively. He's not in game shape, but he seems on track to return to the roster in early December on schedule.

6) Let's say there's a guy on the Hall of Fame ballot in baseball who played 13 seasons in the majors. During that time he won three league Most Valuable Player awards and eight Gold Gloves, hit 411 home runs and stole 445 bases. Would that player be elected to the Hall of Fame? Well, those are the exact statistics of Barry Bonds from his rookie season in the majors, 1986, through the 1998 season. All that has been credibly written about Bonds and steroid use says he began using before the 1999 season. If that is true, if such a clear line of demarcation exists, then wouldn't it be fair to judge Bonds's Hall-worthiness on what he did prior to the '99 season? And if you do, are those not HOF numbers?

... NOT FEELIN'

1) There isn't anything I can say that could possibly begin to explain what happened in Kansas City Saturday morning, why Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then went to the Chiefs' facility and killed himself, leaving the child he and his girlfriend had an orphan, and leaving his family, friends and co-workers a lifetime of trying to explain. So I won't say anything else.

2) Marvin Miller was the most important labor figure in the history of sports unions. Without Miller, none of the riches that today's NBA players and players of all sports take for granted would exist. Miller was head of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, but all the other unions took their cues from the MLBPA, by far the strongest of the sports unions, for generations. And it was Miller's union that won the hardest and most important concessions from owners who had, for a hundred years, kept baseball players from free agency with the odious reserve clause. I know that Curt Flood's lawsuit against baseball in 1971 was an important step toward getting that clause eliminated, but Flood lost his lawsuit. It wasn't until 1975, when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause and were granted free agency, that the floodgates opened for players to be able to determine their own destiny. Leagues have gradually chipped away at that freedom, making rookie contracts longer and free agency contracts shorter, but players still have the ability to cash in and to play where they want. That essential freedom that the rest of us have to live and work where we choose was achieved by pro athletes mainly because of Miller, who died last week at 95.

2A) I didn't deal often with Rick Majerus, but on the occasions I did he was always funny and thought-provoking. We had a really nice conversation one morning in a hotel gym, when we were both trying to sweat out the previous night's festivities. Sad to see the longtime Marquette and Utah coach passed away Saturday at 64.

3) I know the Mavs are spinning Derek Fisher's arrival as bringing in a heady and tough veteran, but if you need to pick up a 37-year-old off the street to run your team instead of using 25-year-old Darren Collison or 24-year-old Roddy Beaubois, that's not a good thing. And, apparently, Fisher's addition has ruffled Collison's feathers, too.

4) I'm confused. Based on the egregious ref fail in missing the 24-second violation that should have been called on the Spurs in the last minute of overtime against Memphis Saturday night, followed by the missed foul call on Manu Ginobili on the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay on Memphis' subsequent possession, is David Stern's NBA pro-Spurs or anti-Spurs? Explain it slowly to me.

5) So, what you do is, commission a statue of, say, Utah's Mo Williams, and you put it in front of @Dame_Lillard. Dribble penetration problem solved!

6) Slowly, inexorably, sadly, the icons of my youth and adolescence fade into obscurity.

MR. FIFTEEN

The return of the wildly popular M15 -- highlighting a player from a team who is not getting much playing time, for whatever reason, and who they are -- features, this week, Portland's rookie forward Victor Claver, the latest player from the strong Spanish basketball program to try and make his mark in the NBA, following in the footsteps of notables like Pau and Marc Gasol, and former Blazer Rudy Fernandez.

Claver, 24, was a top European prospect when the Blazers made him their first-round pick in 2009, but he stayed in Europe and starred for Valencia of the ACB League in Spain during the past three years. He also was a member of the Spanish National Team that took the U.S. men's team to the limit in the Summer Olympics in London before settling for the silver medal. Claver hoped to make a splash this season along with fellow import Joel Freeland, but so far he's appeared in just four games, playing a total of 23 minutes

Me: What's been the biggest surprise so far now that you're seeing NBA players and teams every night, and not just on television?

Victor Claver: I think when you're in Europe, and you follow the NBA, but not much, you know all the players. But when you come, you realize that a lot of the players, they are really good. Every team has players that can make 30 points per game. That's the biggest surprise.

Though playing time has been hard to come by, Portland rookie Victor Claver is driven to improve.

Me: I assume Coach [Terry] Stotts has talked to you about his expectations for you this season. What did he say about playing time, development, and how he wants you to try and accomplish those goals?

VC: We have a lot of players. He's always saying that we have to work out every day, because you don't know when you're going to play, and you have to be ready any moment. The season is long and there are a lot of games, there are injuries, there are a lot of games you're going to have a chance to play, and you have to do well.

Me: How do you stay ready?

VC: Working hard every day. It doesn't matter if we're on the road, like now, or we stay where we are some days in Portland, I have to work out, do something. Work on the court.

Me: What made you decide this was the year you wanted to come over and try the NBA?

VC: Well, there were a lot of things I was thinking about. I thought it was the right moment for me, for my career, for me as a person. The Blazers gave me an opportunity to come. They wanted me to be here since they picked me in the Draft, and for me it was a good opportunity, and I didn't want to pass. That's why I came.

Me: I'm sure you talked to Rudy before you came, and it was up and down at best for him in Portland. How concerned did that make you?

VC: Well, I was lucky, because I could talk with him, with Sergio Rodriguez [the former 2006 first-round pick of the Suns who also played in Portland for three seasons], also with Marc and Pau. They explained to me almost everything here. That's good for me, because some moments you don't know what to do, you can think about what they say.

Me: So there were no surprises? You knew the good and the bad.

VC: Yes. It's different than when you listen than when you are inside. And that's [different] when you come and you don't know anything, and when you have friends that talk about it.

Me: What is your best position in the NBA?

VC: Like what I'm doing now, forward. 'Cause I think I can do a lot of things for the team. I can help in different situations. Being active in all the court, running, I think I make the team better and help the team to win.

Me: Are you at all concerned that because the Blazers are a young team and has some growing to do that you won't get a chance to show what you can do this year?

VC: Well, I think it will be a moment for everyone. If I play at all or if I don't, I'm going to improve. We have the coaches and I think that's the most important thing for us this year. We spend a lot of time with the coaches doing extra work, and I think that's going to help me to improve.

Me: How do you explain to your family and friends back in Valencia what's happening with you this season?

VC: Well, it's different, what they know. Because they only see the stats. They see that you don't play, and it's like, is there some problem? But I explain that I'm well, I need time to play, to help out for the NBA. I know that. I will have that time. That time will come. They don't have to worry about that. I'm good. I'm in the NBA, so the dream came true. I just want to enjoy it.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Anyone know where I can get a quick Tetanus shot in Boston?
-- Nets forward Kris Humphries (@KrisHumphries), Wednesday, 11:39 p.m., with accompanying picture of the scratches he received during his shoving match with the Celtics' Rajon Rondo in Wednesday's Boston-Brooklyn game.

THEY SAID IT

"We can't be excited like we won a championship. We didn't win the championship of New York."
-- Nets guard Deron Williams, after Brooklyn won the first regular-season meeting with the Knicks since moving from New Jersey on Monday night.

"Well, tonight Andy Varejao was again fantastic and everybody else didn't suck."
-- Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, after Cleveland won a buzzer-beater Friday night in Atlanta. Varejao, who has been outstanding this season, leading the league in rebounding, has gotten Scott's praise all season, with Scott lobbying for him to make the All-Star Game.

"I would assume he would be excited to play the Magic."
-- Orlando guard J.J. Redick, deadpanning to the Orlando Sentinel before the Magic played the Lakers in Los Angeles Sunday. It was the first time Dwight Howard faced his former team. Not so sure he was so excited after the Magic used "Hack-a-Dwight" throughout the fourth quarter of its upset win at Staples Center; he finished 9 of 21 from the free throw line.

--

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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