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Fine shows Stern will exit as alpha
Love him or hate him, David Stern has no intention of being anyone other than David Stern for his remaining 14 months as NBA commissioner.
On Friday evening, 24 hours after San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich failed to bring four starters with him to Miami for a nationally televised game against the Heat, Stern made good on his promise to level “substantial sanctions” against the team.
As in: A $250,000 fine.
“The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case,” Stern said in a statement released by the league announcing the fine. “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.”
Actually, the result here is dictated by two wildly successful men accustomed to ruling their own roosts with impunity.
In Popovich, we have one of the greatest coaches of all time who probably thought he’d found a way to tweak the league — and Stern — within the bounds of the rules while getting the added benefit of resting his guys.
This is not the first time Popovich has held his stars out of a game, and he probably thought he was safe from retribution, if not Stern’s ire.
But this is Stern, the supporting actor in this silly drama, and in him we have one of the most successful sports figures of the past three decades.
That success has been born out of a pattern that’s dominated his tenure as the NBA’s strongman, and it played itself out perfectly in the Restgate fiasco: A controlling personality, a willingness to level punishment, a sharp-eyed view of the bottom line and building the brand, a willingness to support his partners (in this case TNT) with sometimes-merciless precision or attack his enemies with merciless cunning and a world view that could best be summed up as, “There is no other alpha but me.”
The NBA, in announcing the fine and Stern’s comments, cited its decision as based on a “violation of 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.”
That’s just the fine print behind what the announcement really was saying: This is still David Stern’s NBA, and it will remain so until Feb. 1, 2014, regardless of what anyone else on the face of the Earth thinks.
While it’s a plausible argument to suggest Stern overstepped his bounds, the fact is he recognizes none.
Yes, the idea of assessing fines or punishment to a team for resting its players is a slippery slope. Yes, Popovich is a remarkably well-respected head coach who happens to have a very old team that may or may not stay healthy long enough to play into June. Yes, the Spurs have done this before without punishment just as surely as other teams – including Pat Riley’s Lakers – have previously done the same thing and been punished.
But none of that matters. Not precedent, or reason, or consistency, or pointing out the obvious — that had this been some Tuesday night game against, say, Charlotte, no one would have batted an eye.
This is David Stern’s world, and in that world embarrassing him or his TV partners — Pop did both — means punishment will arrive swiftly. Wrong or right, agree or disagree that it should be so, that’s the NBA. That’s Stern’s NBA.
Interestingly, it may not be the NBA of Adam Silver, Stern’s hand-picked successor and the guy who will take his place on Feb. 1, 2014, the day Stern retires.
“The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams,” Silver told reporters in April. “And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second-guess.”
Makes sense to me, too. And yes, Pop is the last coach I’d second-guess, too. But until 2014, the last person anyone in the league should second-guess is David Stern. Even when he’s wrong and they’re right, it’s his way. That’s how dictatorships work, the good ones and the bad ones alike.
This is Stern’s world, where crossing him can cost you $250,000, regardless of what makes sense.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.