By Ben Golliver
"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."
Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green back to San Antonio rather than play them against the defending champion Heat, even though none of the players was suffering from known injuries. Thursday's game was the sixth and final game of a road trip and San Antonio had won the previous five games. It also was the Spurs' fourth game in five nights and the second half of a back-to-back. Returning his stars to San Antonio gave them extra time to prepare for a Southwest Division game against the Grizzlies on Saturday. Even without their stars, the Spurs held a lead into the game's final minute before losing to the Heat 105-100.
The NBA's statement also said the Spurs did violate league rules in sending their players home.
"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.
The Associated Press reports that Stern's statements following that April 2010 meeting indicated that the league had not adopted any policy restricting a coach's ability to handle his team how he sees fit, but did hint that extreme situations could present the need for league intervention.
After that meeting, Stern said nothing had been established. Stern, commenting after that meeting about discussion of teams resting healthy players, said there was "no conclusion reached other than a number of teams thought it should be at the sole discretion of the team, the coach, the general manager and I think it's fair to say I agree with that, unless that discretion is abused."
The fine carried out Stern's threat to punish Popovich, one he issued before Thursday's game tipped off.
“I apologize to all NBA fans,” Stern said in that statement, which sparked all sorts of reaction over the last 24 hours. “This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.”
“We’ve done this before in hopes of making a wiser decision, rather than a popular decision,” Popovich told reporters before the game, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s pretty logical.”
Popovich offered no response when told of Stern's statement in a postgame interview following Miami's victory. Spurs management also reportedly offered no comment on the statement.
The Spurs have employed a strategic resting strategy for a number of years. Prior to Friday's decision, the league had not punished him. The most recent precedent for punishing a team for not playing its players apparently dates back to 1990, when the Lakers were fined $25,000 after they did not play their stars in their season finale. This is a relatively common practice once playoff seedings are locked up, and has gone unpunished recently. So too has "tanking," the strategic coaching decision to play younger players instead of older players to develop them down the stretch and, of course, improve draft positioning.
Stern's original threat, the fact that Popovich was punished and the size and scope of the punishment are all surprising. During the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver seemed to indicate that Popovich's strategy was approved by the league.
"The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams," Silver said in April, according to NBA.com. "And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess."