By Mike Monroe
If Peter Holt mutters a few curses in the direction of Gregg Popovich's office as he writes that check for $250,000 to David Stern this week, he needs to remember one thing:
Just how broadly he smiles each time he receives a check from Olympic Tower that represents the Spurs' share of the league's TV revenue.
Lost in the indignation, official and otherwise, over Popovich's decision to send four of his best players back to San Antonio rather than play them against the Heat is this: The role TNT network's exclusive Thursday night programming played in the brutal Spurs' schedule that led to the coach's choice.
The cable network paid through the nose for that TNT Thursday accommodation. Now Holt and his partners in Spurs ownership will pay for Popovich's reaction to playing four games in five nights. That run was dictated, in part, because one day of each week effectively has been taken from those who must figure out the giant jigsaw puzzle that is the league schedule.
Plotting 82 games for each team has been a nightmare for years, and more so since the league expanded to 30 teams. There are arena availability issues in every city. Some are just as knotty as the Spurs face each February, when the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo takes over the AT&T Center for most of the month.
The league has a computer program to guide the schedule makers, but some practical issues always have been beyond even digital solution.
Scheduling became much more difficult when the league agreed in 2003 to limit Thursday games to the two aired that night by TNT. The cable giant pays a nine-figure rights fee, part of the $932 million the league will get this season from its TV partners, and insisted on having no competition for NBA-obsessed viewers on Thursdays.
One side effect of that accommodation: The schedulers had to cram all but 40 of 1,230 regular-season games into six days per week, rather than seven.
Didn't that guarantee more back-to-backs and stretches of four games in five nights for every team?
Except for Orlando, which has only 13 sets of back-to-back games, every team has at least 15 of those. Twelve teams have 20 or more. Philadelphia has 22, a league high.
Except for Utah, every team this season has at least one stretch of four games in five nights.
The Knicks and Timberwolves have four such stretches of schedule brutality. Five more have three.
The Spurs' schedule falls in the middle of the brutality scale: 17 sets of back-to-backs and two sets of four games in five nights.
Stern doesn't care about any of the factors that should have mitigated outrage at Popovich's decision. Or TNT's unintended role in how they came about. What the commissioner saw was a potential ratings bonanza for TNT being sabotaged. So he threatened substantial sanctions before one of the most entertaining games of the season brought decent Nielsen numbers.
Popovich insists the decision to sit Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker was made as soon as he took a gander at the schedule when it was released in August. If his team was to have a shot at winning Saturday's game against the Grizzlies, he reasoned, his Big Three needed to be fresh to face Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen.
Danny Green was added to the scratch list when Popovich increased his workload on the recently concluded six-game road trip after injuries sidelined Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson.
Could it be that Stern took note of Popovich's assertion and pored over the Spurs' schedule to find the next time they will be playing four games in five nights before settling on the third-highest amount in league history as their punishment?
See, Popovich will bring his team to Stern's“home court,” Madison Square Garden, on Jan. 3 to play the Knicks, Stern's favorite team, in San Antonio's fourth game in five nights.
If Popovich were to sit his Big Three in that game, Stern's head might explode.
Related link: TV big factor in creation of brutal schedules - San Antonio Express-News
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