David Stern owes the fans an apology for the slam-dunk contest, for three decades of Donald Sterling, for the Wizards' 0-12 start and for acting like a general manager of the New Orleans Hornets last year. He should not feel obligated to give a my-bad just because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to give his three best players a blow.
Pop wasn't trying to tweak the spirit of the game Thursday. He was trying to prevent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker from tweaking a tendon, either now or down the road. His job isn't to look out for the best interest of basketball, only the best interest of the Spurs and their realistic chances of winning a championship.
And so this "controversy" that flared in Miami really didn't have the kind of dangerous and far-reaching consequences that Stern imagined. Really, who was offended or negatively affected by Pop's decision to sit his Big Three against the Heat? Not his revamped lineup, because the players appreciated Pop's confidence in them, and that's why the Spurs routinely have the best role players in basketball. Not any Miami fans who wanted their team to win, which the Heat did, although barely. Probably not many basketball fans, either, because they've seen the trio play for nearly nine years now and besides, the Spurs have been charged with putting people to sleep, anyway.
But after a stretch of six road games games in 10 nights, and despite already missing Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson with injuries, Pop made a judgment call and the NBA office reacted as though Tim Donaghy played substitute ref for a day. Stern fired off a statement apologizing to fans, condemning the action and calling the voluntary benchings "unacceptable." He promised "substantial sanctions" as early as today, which might be the first time a commissioner punishes a team by ordering players to play rather than sit.
I do understand Stern if only a bit. He has done this before; he fined the Lakers for sitting Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the waning stretch of the season, when playoff positions were still unsettled. He's probably fearful of a trend where superstar players are given single-game oxygen breaks from time to time, depriving fans in certain cities that only get to see those players once a season. Or maybe a team might allow its star player to spend the Christmas Day game at home with his family instead. And because it's only November, Stern isn't buying the notion that these guys are whipped from four weeks of ball. Yes, I get it.
I just get Pop a little more.
"We've done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, instead of a popular decision," Pop said. "Hopefully he can see things from my perspective, too."
In helping the Spurs to the second-best record in basketball, Duncan has played at a high level so far this season, rare for him the last few years. Ginobili has a history of nagging injuries that often kept him from being 100 percent in the spring. Parker is the youngest and sturdiest of the three, which raises a question: Had Pop just sent only Duncan and Ginobili home, would that cause Stern to issue threats? How many players are allowed to "rest" before there's a "violation?" What exactly is the rule here?
The answer to that last question is "none." There is no guideline for coaches and when they can and can't play whomever and however they please. The league and Stern venture onto the edge of a slippery slope when they start telling coaches how to coach.
Besides, suppose Pop ordered the three players to suit up, then placed them in the starting lineup, then called timeout 30 seconds into the game and pulled them off the floor for good? Must Pop stoop to that kind of mockery just to make their active status official?
Back in the day, when teams wanted to keep their important players fresh, they just came up with fake injuries. "Knee tendonitis" was a common one because it couldn't be policed. But these mystery illnesses usually happened in late April, after a team clinched a playoff spot and decided to protect its players for the post-season.
No one expects Pop's technique to become a trend, resulting in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade suddenly chilling in November. This is most likely a one-time thing, conducted by a coach who has done this before with his players, mainly Duncan, because it suits the Spurs' big-picture plan.
Would Stern raise a stink if the Spurs played the Kings instead of Miami? Or if Pop rested his three best bench players instead of three stars? You know the answer.
As it turned out, it would've been hard for Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to top what the scaled-down Spurs did anyway in Miami. Certainly few fans walked away angry from a game with a tight finish and a Heat win. That's exactly what they wanted.
Can't wait to see what "substantial sanctions" are in store for the Spurs for fighting hard and losing by five to the defending champions.