On November 29, 2012 (six years ago today), there was an NBA basketball game that got some attention. It was a nationally televised game featuring two powerhouse teams: the San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan, etc.), versus the Miami Heat (Lebron James, etc.).
To the dismay of many, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich more-or-less threw the game, by benching the Spurs’ four best players. Miami ended up winning, in a surprisingly close game.
The NBA promptly fined the Spurs $250,000 for violating their vaguely-defined rules against this sort of thing.
The incident got a lot of attention among sports journalists and fans. Some argued that what the Spurs did was perfectly okay, some thought the Spurs deserved criticism but not a fine, and some thought the fine was justified.
Those who were upset with the Spurs’ actions usually argued that it was unfair to the Heat fans, who didn’t get to see the star Spurs players play. (It would be the Spurs only visit to Miami that season, unless both teams made it to the NBA finals.) Other reasons were that it was unfair to the network that televised the game, or that it was just wrong, for some fuzzy reason that they had trouble putting into words.
Those are valid points, but I would argue that they overlook the real issue, which is that the Spurs’ action was unfair to the other NBA teams, most importantly the Memphis Grizzlies. (I am not saying that no one else made this point, just that I recall it being grossly under-emphasized at best.)
Why the Grizzlies? Because the Spurs were scheduled to play the Grizzlies in their next game, two days later. The Grizzlies were one of the teams in the Spurs’ conference who were likely to finish with a similar record to that of the Spurs. So, the Spurs and Grizzlies were likely to be arch-rivals for playoff seeding. The Heat were not even in the same conference as the Spurs, so their relative won-loss records were all but irrelevant.
The Spurs had played a game the previous day, so they were a little fatigued, and were looking at two tough games over the next three days. If they played both games normally, they stood a good chance of losing both. So, the Spurs sacrificed a minimally-important game, in order to be stronger in a maximally-important game.
Genius, you say! Popovich is playing nine-dimensional chess!
Uh…, no. This is an obvious strategy. Everybody who needs to know it, knows it. It’s not hard to understand that doing everything you can do to win today, at the expense of tomorrow, is not always going to be your best strategy. Popovich was merely stretching the rules to see how much he could get away with.
(Speaking of chess, I was going to write about how this phenomenon relates to chess tournaments, and the etiquette of resigning and agreeing to draws. But I’ll save that for a later date.)
Contrary to many observers’ opinions, just because it was the Spurs’ rational strategy, doesn’t mean it should be allowed by the league. I assume that most sports leagues have rules that require contestants to make an honest effort to win, even when it is not in their best interest. I know I’ve seen tennis players sanctioned for not trying hard enough to win a match. To do otherwise harms the integrity of the league: Contestant C throwing games can affect whether Contestant A finishes ahead of Contestant B.
Taken to the extreme, the actual best strategy in most team sports is to own as many teams as you can, and sacrifice all but one of them to create a single superteam. I would hope that pretty much everyone would agree that owning more than one team should be disallowed. But if you think that other anti-competitive strategies should be allowed, where exactly do you draw the line?
This problem exists in most sports, with a few exceptions such as stroke play golf, in which everyone competes against the course. In general, it is literally impossible to have a perfectly fair tournament with more than two competitors, in a game where contestants pair up against each other. (Note that the regular season in most sports is a kind of tournament, with the teams competing to make the postseason if nothing else.) The best you can do is to enforce vaguely-defined rules about playing to win, and hope for the best. (And I don’t mean to suggest that perfect fairness is necessarily a good thing, but there’s almost never a risk of too much fairness.)
Incidentally, the Spurs won their game against the Grizzlies, in overtime. They finished the season with 58 wins, giving them the 2nd playoff seed in their conference. The Grizzlies won 56 games, which was only good for 5th.
If (ridiculous hypothetical here) the Spurs had played honestly and lost both of those noteworthy games, and somehow nothing else changed, then both teams, as well as the Denver Nuggets, would have been tied for 2nd with 57 wins. I’m too lazy to research the tiebreak rules, but I’m pretty sure either the Spurs or the Grizzlies would have gotten the 2nd seed, since the Nuggets did not win their division.
And as it turns out, the Spurs did visit Miami again, because the Spurs and Heat made it to the NBA finals, with the Heat winning 4 games to 3.