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Stern says $250,000 fine for Spurs was 'not about a coaching decision'

(Elsa/Getty Images) David Stern isn't backing down from his decision to fine the Spurs. (Elsa/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

Even with criticism coming from all corners over the last week, NBA commissioner David Stern stood by his decision to fine the Spurs $250,000 after coach Gregg Popovich elected to strategically rest four key players during a nationally-televised game last Thursday.

Speaking to the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week, Stern said that the decision was nothing personal against Popovich and that his authority to issue a fine, which has been questioned, derived from his ability to exercise "discretion" amid the situation's extreme circumstances.

Stern said they had a big discussion at the NBA’s Board of Governors in April 2010 about sitting out players in a manner contrary to the best interests of NBA. Stern said he told owners he would maintain the responsibility of addressing the situation with the ability to levy fines to teams if they violated the policy.

"The organization agreed they would take away four players, including a 26-year-old and a 30-year-old -- their four best players,’’ said Stern, who will be attending Wednesday night's game between the Hornets-Lakers at the New Orleans Arena. "And they did it without notifying the league or the media the way they’re supposed to for injury and illness. That, and the totality of all the circumstances, if this wasn’t the appropriate time for exercising the discretion then there would never be an appropriate time. This is not about the coach, I’m fine with Pop.’’

"This is not about a coaching decision,'' Stern said. "This is more about the relationship among our 30 teams and 30 owners.''

Following those April 2010 meetings, Stern said, according to the Associated Press, that resting players was "at the sole discretion of the team [and] the coach ... unless that discretion is abused." Deputy commissioner Adam Silver reiterated during the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season that such decisions were a coach's to make.

Stern's statements mostly echoed the wording in the press release announcing the fine.

“The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case,” commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team’s only regular-season visit to Miami. The team also did this without informing the Heat, the media, or the league office in a timely way. Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”

“The Spurs’ actions were in violation of a league policy, reviewed with the NBA Board of Governors in April 2010, against resting players in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA,” the statement read.

Prior to tipoff between the Spurs and Heat, Stern had threatened to punish the Spurs.

“I apologize to all NBA fans,” Stern said. “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”

Popovich, of course, views strategically resting players as a coaching decision.

“We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, rather than a popular decision,” Popovich told reporters before the Heat game, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s pretty logical.”

ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach, slammed Stern while broadcasting a game last Friday, arguing that managing a roster is indeed a coaching decision.

“The league is not right,” he said. “I don’t think Gregg Popovich is wrong. … He’s trying to [rest his guys together] in one game so his team plays together as much as possible, to give himself the best chance of winning. A big part of any coach’s job is to pace your team correctly. That means how much you play them, how many minutes, how long you practice. That’s what his job is. To say he doesn’t have the right to do that [is wrong].”

Celtics coach Doc Rivers also sided with Popovich.

“You’ve got to coach your team to win in the long run and you have to do whatever you need to do,” Rivers said before a Friday game against the Blazers, according to the Associated Press. “If that’s sitting players, you sit players.”

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, however, backed Stern, according to ESPNDallas.com.

“We’re still a business. Resting the stars for the long haul one game earlier, one game later, sure. Resting when you’ve got our biggest customer at stake, that’s a whole different animal. I’m not saying the Mavs wouldn’t have done the same thing, but I realize that it’d be a fineable offense. And if it was me, it’d probably be 10 times as much.”

Stern's statements here obscure rather than clarify the issue, at least until you read between the lines. Leading his explanation by pointing out that the Spurs rested their four best players -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green -- fails to address the Spurs' repeated practice of strategic resting in previous seasons. Pointing out that the Spurs didn't inform the league office in advance of their decision is equally confusing; if injury reporting protocol was violated here, was it also violated in the past? Yes or no, was a simple injury reporting protocol violation worth a $250,000 fine, gigantic by NBA standards?

When Stern advances to oblique phrases like "totality of the circumstances" and "relationship among our 30 teams and 30 owners" we finally get a hint of what was really driving this fine. Of course, as Cuban said in much plainer English, the fine was really all about protecting the league's relationship with its television partners and advertisers.

Stern announced earlier this season that he will step down as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014.

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