For Whom the Ball Rolls

Is NBA All-Star center Tim Duncan playing for your enjoyment—or to win a championship?

Such priorities are not normally seen as conflicting, but circumstances arose last week that suggested otherwise. That’s when, during a road game against the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich decided he wanted his best (and oldest) players to rest up rather than battle the defending NBA champs. He therefore sent home Duncan and several other star players—Manu GinobiliTony Parker and Danny Green—leaving a depleted team to do its best.  The Spurs lost, 105-100.

Popovich’s decision might have made strategic sense, given his long-term priority of winning a championship, but others, most notably NBA Commissioner David Stern, were not amused. “I apologize to all NBA fans,” Stern said in a public statement. “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.” Stern fined the Spurs $250,000.

So the fault lines are these: David Stern feels that fans—and sponsors—deserve to see the stars they’ve paid (or at least tuned in) to see. Many fans and sponsors agree. Popovich believes that deciding which players to use, and when, should be the prerogative of the coach. This view has supporters, too. In fact, Bleacher Report columnist Michael Moraitis called Stern “a tyrant with no regard for the rights of NBA teams.”

Peter Drucker dealt often with questions such as these—questions of stakeholders and balancing objectives.  And he always found them knotty. “There are few things that distinguish competent from incompetent management quite as sharply as the performance in balancing objectives,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “Yet there is no formula for doing the job. Each business requires its own balance—and it may require a different balance at different times.”

Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs — Photo credit: Keith Allison

Also, Drucker noted, any successful service institution must “work out some balance between the different and conflicting definitions of mission.”  Meanwhile, failure to take into account the objectives and the priorities of different stakeholders can lead to arbitrary, even tyrannical, leadership.

Writing in The Frontiers of Management of General Electric in the 1950s, Drucker lamented that managers there “did not think through what the best-balanced interest of these different stakeholders would mean, how to judge performance against such an objective and how to create accountability for it.”

Who do you think is in the right here—Stern or Popovich?