In a bad way.
The league office and its commissioner have always had a tendency to micromanage its teams, but they have now officially breached the province of hypocrisy.
In an admittedly stunning—though not out of character—move, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich opted to send four of his best players back to San Antonio before the team's game against the Miami Heat on November 29.
As unexpected as Popovich's decision was, however, it was not completely surprising.
Sure, sending home the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker—the Spurs' top-three scorers—and Danny Green against the defending champs took much of the intrigue out of the game. But that doesn't mean it was some maniacal ploy by San Antonio.
Popovich has been known to rest the majority of his starters before. With a team as old as the Spurs, it's honestly hard not to.
Not if the team wants to be playing well into spring.
So from a tactical standpoint, Pop's decision made plenty of sense. The Spurs were finishing up a six-game road trip and were set to face the Memphis Grizzlies—a division rival with the league's best record—on Saturday night.
From a fan's standpoint and business perspective, however, Popovich's strategy was unfortunate. This was supposed to be a nationally televised game between two of the best of teams in the league. Instead, it became a nationally televised game between one of the best teams in the league and another one's backups.
Stern, in all his iron-fisted glory, was naturally displeased, and (via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst) voiced his plan to take action:
NBA commissioner David Stern issued a statement before the game started apologizing to fans and saying, "This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
Surprised? I didn't think so.
This is the same league, governed by the same man, that thought it pertinent to institute a 90-second cap on pregame rituals. Given just that, why wouldn't there be "substantial sanctions" forthcoming for San Antonio?
Well, maybe because NBA deputy and commissioner-to-be Adam Silver essentially ensured decisions such as these were at the discretion of coaches and their teams:
"The strategic resting of particular players on particular nights is within the discretion of the teams," Silver told NBA.com in April with the qualifier that it was a lockout-shortened season. "And Gregg Popovich in particular is probably the last coach that I would second guess."
In case you're wondering, that's what it reads like when the NBA's proverbial foot meets its metaphorical mouth.
How is this not hypocrisy at its best? How, in good conscience, can the league essentially condone such behavior, from the exact same coach, only to go on to penalize it?
Bear in mind that not only do other teams rest their best players on occasion, but that the NBA is home to the disreputable art of tanking—a past time that dates back far beyond teams giving their athletes the night off.
Were the Charlotte Bobcats persecuted for willingly playing their way to the worst winning percentage in league history? Are rebuilding teams crucified for playing younger, less talented players in hopes of a better future instead of a more competitive present?
No, not at all.
And let's not fail to acknowledge that this is almost no different from contending teams resting players down the stretch in advance of the playoffs. Popovich just has to invoke such tactics early because his team is older than most.
So why exactly is Stern making an example of San Antonio?
This decision wasn't about the Spurs winning this game, which they almost did. It was about the team making an immediate sacrifice to facilitate a better future. Tell me how that's wrong.
Better yet, explain to me how the NBA can even chart a course of action without consulting the Spurs and Popovich first.
Before dispatching statement tonight, NBA had no communication w/ Spurs about Pop's decision to send players home, league source tells Y!— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) November 30, 2012
Had Stern contacted San Antonio before promoting tyranny, perhaps he would have understood why Popovich did what he did. Maybe he would have come to understand that Pop thought himself well within his rights to make such a call.
Or maybe Stern just didn't care.
As we've come to understand, the NBA wants what it wants, and if that entails reprimanding what it doesn't tolerate, but verbally condoned, then so be it.
Forget that Popovich has been known to bench nearly half his team in the past. Forget that the Spurs have their biggest game of the early season on the horizon. And forget that the league and its fans were still treated to a thrilling finale despite San Antonio's self-imposed depletion.
Then while you're at it, attempt to forget about Stern's gross exaggeration of what transpired. Attempt to forget that by punishing the Spurs, the NBA is solidifying its status as big business' version of a moral charlatan.
Should the Spurs be fined for sitting their star players?
Then remember that before you thought any of that, before you came to any of your own conclusions, that you should have consulted Stern and the NBA first.
Because that's the type of basketball world we live in now. One where teams not only can't make their own decisions, but where the league is free to renege on its word.
And for a league piloted by a man who preaches parity, where's the fairness in that?