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The NBA backs down, no fine for Pop and the Spurs

When Gregg Popovich rested his stars during a national TV game against the Heat last November the NBA issued a fine of $250,000. When he did it last night in Oakland, the NBA had no problem with it. Score one for Pop.


Obviously you all know that I don't like Gregg Popovich's habit of resting all his stars in particular games. And no, the fact that the Spurs, playing without Parker (legitimately injured), Duncan or Ginobili actually beat the Warriors last night is not in the least bit relevant. Not unless someone out there can convince me that Popovich believes he put his best team on the floor last night.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss discusses his newly coined term, the fake forfeit, in Friday's Daily Dime at ESPN. He enumerates some of the advantages, which are very real, and which I fully understand.

But the truth of the matter is that ALL of the perceived advantages that Strauss lists could be accomplished with a less petulant version of this strategy -- and in fact, I would argue that the advantages would be more clear cut. How about this? How about rest Duncan one game and Ginobili another game? In this specific example of back-to-backs at the end of a tough stretch of games, rest Duncan versus the Suns and Ginobili against the Warriors (or vice versa).

By sitting his stars simultaneously (in the case of last season's Heat game for which he was fined, he sat four perfectly healthy starters) Popovich is showing a total disregard for every NBA stakeholder outside of his team -- the fans (those in the television audience and especially the ticketholders), the other teams, the broadcast partners, the league itself. I challenge you to name another entity for whom this practice is anything other than an insult. Popovich doing something more or less because he can.

So when Strauss writes that it gives role players a chance to take the spotlight and gain valuable experience, well sure it does -- but wouldn't Aron Baynes be getting a more valuable experience playing with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili rather than playing with Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli? If San Antonio's reserves are indeed needed to play a bigger role in the playoffs, odds are it will be because ONE of their stars is missing, not all three, and they'll need to be comfortable playing WITH the other stars. They can play with scrubs in garbage time.

So if more rest for aging stars and more experience for role players are two goals accomplished by this strategy, those things could be accomplished as effectively or more effectively by staggering rest games. Instead, Popovich's habit of sitting everyone at once is designed to give his team the best chance to win in the games where everyone plays, at the direct expense of his chances in the game where everyone sits. Which is a breach of his responsibility to 28 other teams, the fans and the league as a whole. (And again, the fact the Spurs won in Oakland is totally irrelevant. Popovich is making this decision in advance knowing full well that he is placing a less competitive team on the floor in a league that assumes its constituent teams will compete every night.)

As much as I dislike the practice, the league's handling of it has been just as irresponsible. How in the world can one instance be punishable with a fine of a quarter of a million dollars, but all other instances be perfectly acceptable and escape all punishment? According to David Aldridge during the TNT broadcast, the NBA's decision not to fine the Spurs for the Warriors game stems from the fact that they provided more notice this time than they did last November -- they sent out a press release via eMail six hours before tip off.

To which I say... Huh? What possible difference does a few extra hours make? Did the fans who were planning to attend the game get to sell their (now much less valuable) tickets? Did TNT get to re-schedule a national TV game? Did TNT change their promo package to feature Baynes and Mills instead of Duncan and Ginobili? How does an earlier email mitigate the offense in any way? You know, in the U.S. legal system, the further in advance you plan a crime the more severe the punishment becomes -- it's called premeditation and it's a bad thing, not a good thing.

What's really happening here is that the NBA tried to scare Popovich last year with the fine and it didn't work. Popovich thumbed his nose at the league and even rested Kawhi Leonard and Duncan for an April game against the Grizzlies that had major playoff implications. Like a parent who issues an ultimatum to a petulant child only to immediately back down ("I'm going to count to three.... OK, I'm going to count to five... four and a half... four and three quarters...") the NBA has realized that Popovich is unafraid and now they're looking for a way to save face ("Thanks for the eMail Pop, we're cool.")
Last year's statement from the NBA explaining the fine stated that "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." You know what? That's a good policy. It's difficult to enforce obviously, but it's a good policy, and it doesn't say anything about the practice being acceptable with sufficient advance notice.

Either the policy exists or it doesn't. By allowing Popovich and the Spurs to escape punishment for their actions last night, apparently it doesn't.