Spurs coach Greg Popvich, left, and NBA commissioner David Stern, pictured in less acrimonious times. (Getty Images)
The Emperor may be stepping away soon, but NBA commissioner David Stern isn't above pulling a James Brown move, putting on that cape one last time to remind everybody he's still the boss.
That has to be the only reason he has chosen to fight this battle against San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who chose to send Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green — his top four scorers — home before the Spurs played the Heat in Miami on Thursday night.
Popovich has done this before, citing his team's age and trying to conserve health in preparation for a long playoff run. Duncan is 36, Ginobili is 35, and both have tons of additional playoff miles on their bodies, so giving them a night off isn't unreasonable — on paper.
While Parker is 30, he has long made the case he'd prefer to play than sit, and Green is just 25, with this being his first season playing more than 25 minutes a night. Only Green and Parker played more than 30 minutes in their last two wins, blowouts against the Magic and Wizards.
But the image of those four guys flying Southwest Airlines to get back home surely seems like a shot at the NBA and its schedule makers. The Spurs' matchup against the Heat was their fourth game in five nights, something most teams have to endure at some point during a season. The Heat have played two games since Nov. 17 and have been home for nearly two weeks before their nationally televised game.
Doing their jobs
In a sense, both Popovich and Stern are right — and wrong.
This is not about the fans — a convenient pawn that's only used to bolster a hypothetical argument — or TV ratings, since we consistently hear the Spurs aren't good for television, with their record-low NBA Finals ratings.
Popovich's responsibility is to look out for the San Antonio Spurs. Not for the NBA, or its television partners or even the fans. His job is to coach the team in the interests of winning, and everything else is secondary.
Stern's job is to look out for the best interests of the league. A premiere team facing a half-strength premiere team in a nationally televised game is not in the NBA's best interests.
Stern has done this before, in 1990 when then-Lakers coach Pat Riley sat Magic Johnson and James Worthy on the final game of the regular season against Portland. Stern fined the team $25,000, so whatever punishment he levies won't be unprecedented.
"I apologize to all NBA fans," Stern said in a statement Thursday. "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
When fans buy a ticket, it doesn't say "Tim Duncan" or "Tony Parker." Those guys could be hurt, suspended or have any unforeseen circumstance occur that prevents them from playing. And as I stated, the Spurs aren't exactly packing in the crowds here. These aren't the late-90s Chicago Bulls.
Popovich did it because it was the Miami Heat. Because it was nationally televised and it would cause a stir. Most importantly, he did it to thumb his nose at the NBA — and more directly, the Emperor.
Don't think for a second Popovich did this without the direct blessing of owner Peter Holt — who was one of Stern's biggest allies in the collective bargaining battles that took place a year ago — and general manager R.C. Buford.
Imagine the conversation between Stern and Popovich, a notoriously sarcastic character with a wry sense of humor.
Stern: "How could you send your players home before playing the Heat?!"
Popovich: (Stares at phone, says nothing)
Stern: "You're gonna be fined, stiffly!"
Popovich: "You done yet? I'm a little jet-lagged from traveling in the past week."
This isn't the first time "Pop" has gone against the league. During the 2007-08 season — with his Spurs as defending champion — the Memphis Grizzlies sent All-Star big man Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers for what looked like a gym bag of old basketballs.
The Lakers were in NBA purgatory at the time, with Kobe Bryant issuing trade demands after getting bounced in the first round the previous two seasons. The trade buoyed the Lakers to the Finals for the next three seasons — and they sent the Spurs packing in the conference finals in five games that May.
After the trade, Pop was enraged, probably feeling like one of the marquee franchises was given a gift from above — perhaps from the league office.
"What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension," Popovich said. "There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I'd like to elect myself to that committee. I would have voted no to the L.A. trade."
We all know Stern can play roles other than commissioner — hence his "basketball reasons" statement for vetoing the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers deal shortly after the lockout ended. But can he tell a coach how to rest his players, how to coach his team?
What if Popovich brought out all four players for opening tip, had one of them commit an intentional foul, then pulled them all for the rest of the night? Would that be a punishable offense?
It wouldn't draw any less attention and the principle of fans at the game and watching on television not getting what they paid for would still stand. But would it be wrong?
This is a slippery slope on Stern's part. He risks opening Pandora's Box because you never know what the next step is — especially when Popovich is involved.
So many "rights," so many "wrongs" but make no mistake — the Emperor is still in charge.