NEW YORK -- Somewhere in the NBA's offices in Olympic tower, someone had to have begged David Stern to stop. You flew off the handle, David, I'm imagining someone saying, let's see if we can find you a graceful way out. Let's put this talk of slapping "substantial sanctions" -- whatever that was supposed to mean -- on the San Antonio Spurs back into the cereal box you pulled it out of and live to fight another day.
No one did, of course, and we are left with this: The NBA fined the Spurs a whopping $250,000 on Friday for doing what was in the best interests of the team. In electing to leave Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green at home, in telling them that after playing five games in eight nights and with a critical showdown against Memphis on Saturday to sit one out, the Spurs had, in the eyes of Stern, compromised the integrity of the game. Nevermind that San Antonio had done this multiple times before. Or that other teams had spit in the face of paying customers for far more diabolical reasons.
Remember in 2006, when Minnesota benched Kevin Garnett and Ricky Davis for the final game of the season? When they allowed Mark Madsen to play like Ray Allen just to keep its draft pick?
How about that same year, when the Suns sat Steve Nash and Raja Bell late in the season against the Lakers to ensure a loss that would elevate L.A. -- and its terrible transition defense -- over the Kings and into a first round matchup with Phoenix?
Or how about in 2002-2003, when the Cavaliers kicked away game after game in a blatant attempt to secure Akron, Ohio native LeBron James?
In pinning a quarter of a million dollar fine on San Antonio, the NBA has opened a Pandora's Box it can never close. So San Antonio didn't suit up its starters. Nevermind that the Spurs held a lead against Miami going into the final minute, and yes, the outcome matters. Where is the line? If Boston sits Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a game against Washington, do they merit a fine? If Mike D'Antoni sends Kobe Bryant home after a long road trip, are the Lakers writing a check? If the Raptors, who owe Oklahoma City its draft pick if the pick falls between 4 and 14, start giving Quincy Acy 30-plus minutes in March, should they be cutting a check?
David Stern believes Gregg Popovich purposefully showed the league up, and on this point, I agree. Popovich could have manufactured reasons for sitting his Big Three. He could have said Parker had the flu, Ginobili had a bum ankle and Duncan had a balky knee. Lying about injuries is commonplace. Before the NBA eliminated the injured list, cases of plantar fasciitis were so rampant you would have thought every team needed a foot doctor on the payroll.
Popovich didn't, believing he could do what he wanted, and Stern took offense. Others did, too. "The Spurs think they are above the league," said an Eastern Conference team executive. "If he wanted to rest guys, he didn't have to do it all at once. He could have said they were injured but he was pissed about the schedule."
But getting sand kicked on your shoes is no reason to nuke the beach, which is what Stern did when he levied the biggest fine since Heat owner Micky Arison broke ranks and tweeted out damaging information during the lockout. Arison broke a confidence, and Stern reacted harshly. San Antonio tried to better position itself to win a championship, and Stern had a similar impulsive reaction.
Make no mistake, San Antonio's decision was about winning. The Spurs don't hate TNT, don't hate the Heat, don't want to stick it to its fans. Think viewers like watching the Spurs anyway? San Antonio's sweep of James' Cavaliers in 2007 was the lowest rated Finals in NBA history. Popovich simply had a choice: On the last leg of a long road trip -- a trip that the Spurs were 5-0 on going into Miami and yes, again, circumstances matter -- and with a showdown with the high powered Grizzlies looming on Saturday, Miami was a game they could afford to lose.
Popovich's responsibility isn't to TNT, isn't to the Heat fans who were not coming to see his team anyway. If San Antonio stumbles again in Game 7 of a playoff series because its players are too tired, Kenny and Charles don't have the power to declare it a best of nine.
"I don't like [the fine]," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You gotta coach your team to win in the long run. You have to do whatever you need to do. If that's sitting players, you sit players."
Said former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy on NBC Sports Network, "Are people going to send their lineups into David Stern's office before every game and get them approved? And even when they are in the game, how many minutes do they have to play? It's just not feasible to legislate it.
"And if you are a true leader in David Stern's position, then lead. Take the moral high ground and get out and persuade people. Lead on the issue. David Stern is not able to do that because, especially among the coaches, he has not built that kind of trust or shown them that kind of respect. What he is stuck with is bully tactics, a my way or the highway approach, and that's just not going to work in this case."
Indeed, with 14 months left in office, Stern has placed himself and his successor, Adam Silver, on a very slippery slope. At the first sign of tanking, the Twittersphere will erupt and call for Stern to come down on the tankers as harshly as he came down on the Spurs. And they will be right. If trying to help your team win a championship is punishable, then there should be an equal penalty for trying to lose.