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David Stern: Be careful where you step in punishing Popovich, Spurs

Nov 30, 2012, 7:59 AM EDT

File photo of NBA Commissioner Stern speaks in New York Reuters

Three times last season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the same game. He’s done it before then as well. And he is far from the only coach to rest multiple key players in a game — Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and other coaches have done it.

And while fans and media sometimes grumbled — “people paid good money to see those stars” — those moves always came without comment from the NBA.

But when Popovich rested his big three on Thursday night for a much anticipated, nationally televised game against the Miami Heat, fans were upset and David Stern stepped in with a statement.

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

This post is not a debate about whether Popovich did the right thing — I think he was well within his rights, our own Brett Pollakoff and plenty fans who tweeted me disagree saying Popovich needed to think of the league and the fans. That is a discussion for another day. (The game being competitive down to the final minute also has little bearing here.)

My point is this — Stern is about to change either NBA rules or at least how the rules are interpreted and enforced by going after the Spurs with some kind of fine and punishment. And once he does that he sets a new precedent that has to be carried out for every team all season long.

And everywhere Stern and the league step with this new rule there are landmines.

With a punishment to the Spurs, the league is saying Popovich’s move — resting healthy players at the end of a road trip even if they are tired — is bad for the overall business of the NBA and cannot be tolerated. While Stern has always been about marketing and league perception first and foremost, he has not ventured into telling coaches how to coach before and a punishment to the Spurs changes that.

David Stern may feel the fan’s frustration from Thursday but he has a lot of questions to think about if he is going to punish the Spurs:

• Why is this situation in Miami a violation of league rules when Popovich did the same thing in Portland last year and it wasn’t? More to the point, how is that line drawn? What is and is not a violation?

• Is it something that is not okay to do in November but would be permitted later in the season, say March? Is the disappointed 12-year-old who doesn’t get to see his favorite players in November justified in his anger but the 12-year-old who has tickets the final week of the season is not?

• Is resting players something that cannot be done for nationally televised games but is okay to do in other games? Does what market the game is in matter? To use the Spurs case as an example, was it wrong to do this in Miami on a Thursday but would have been okay in Orlando on Wednesday? (Be careful in saying publicly that the fans and ratings in big markets are more important that smaller ones.)

• How do you define what players can and cannot be sat? If it is wrong for Popovich to sit major stars like Duncan and Parker, what about if Bucks coach Scott Skiles sits Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to rest them next week. Is that different? What players can and can’t be sat out? Is this a burden that falls only on teams with superstar players?

• Stern can’t use the “competitiveness” argument because the Spurs almost won that game, this is about the NBA’s star system and Stern pretty much has to own up to that here.

• What happens when Popovich wants to rest Duncan and to avoid a league fine Duncan suddenly has a minor foot or knee injury? By just a few weeks into any season you could make a case for every NBA player having a minor injury they should rest.

Wherever Stern steps on this issue there are potential landmines. He can’t say its wrong to do this in Miami but fine in Portland or other smaller market. He doesn’t want to get into dictating who a coach can and can’t play, but this skirts up against it. There is no easy way to define it. If he starts trying to define it by being competitive the Spurs were that.

In the past the league did not take action in these situations. Stern is changing how the rules are enforced if he acts to fine the Spurs here, and he is setting a new precedent that is going to apply to every team in the league going forward. He better think this through. Carefully.

Or it might be smarter if he just walked away from it altogether.

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