Pop didn't do the league any favors by sending home Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green ahead of Thursday night's nationally televised game at the Miami Heat. But neither did Stern do this aging squad any favors by having them play six road games in nine days, the last of which happened to be on TNT.
Pop's job is to prepare his teams to compete for championships in the spring. He'd rested his stars many times before with such a goal in mind and had never before been reprimanded by the powers that be for doing so.
This time around, the team he trotted out at AmericanAirlines Arena came close to upending the defending champions but couldn't quite snag the cigar. In a way, Pop emerges as both a winner (for doing things his way on a big stage) and as a loser.
That was even before Stern distributed this, ummm, sternly worded response (via Ken Berger of CBSSports.com): "I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming."
Stern's job, meanwhile, is to maintain the integrity of the product his league puts forth, in the interest of pleasing his sponsors and broadcast partners (and, occasionally, his fans). He comes out looking like a fool for: 1) his knee-jerk reaction; 2) the Pandora's Box of a debate that said reaction flung wide open; and 3) overseeing a draconian scheduling process that regularly wears teams out (and degrades the game), but at which Pop clearly isn't afraid to thumb his nose.
It would seem, then, that the two parties didn't exactly come out ahead from this whole fiasco. The only clear losers in this petty conflict are the fans, both at home and in the arena.
And not just because the Heat have the most annoying in-arena announcer in all of pro sports, though hearing Mike B. blurt out "Dos...Minutos!" certainly doesn't help.
As is so often the case in fights between elites, the plebeians are left to deal with the debris. In this case, a 105-100 thriller pitting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen against a cast of understudies wasn't so bad. If anything, Pop's move made the Spurs—an organization often (wrongly) derided for playing boring basketball—a more intriguing watch.
The result certainly wasn't as bad as, say, when Pop sat his Big Three during a 40-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers prior to the 2012 All-Star Game, or when Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers withheld most of their stars during a meaningless but nationally televised 78-66 stinker in late April last season.
Still, it's not necessarily the fans' job to care about whatever extenuating circumstances may or may not lead a coach to send his stars home, nor is it up to a commissioner to spit fire at said coach for doing so. The fans' function is to keep the league afloat, to fill seats in cavernous arenas and/or tune into games from home. They're the ones fueling the expansion of the NBA's profit margins and paying the salaries, albeit indirectly, of players, coaches and bigwigs alike.
In that sense, it's well within the fans' rights to be upset about not seeing San Antonio's Great Triumvirate take on its South Beach counterpart. The fans needn't be concerned with why the big names and familiar faces aren't all there, only that they aren't. From the fans' perspective, it's up to the team and the league to figure out how to make the product most appealing.
By the same token, though, the fans would also do well to understand that the implications of this controversy go far beyond their collective satisfaction. To be sure, the modern NBA is a purveyor of entertaining content and has become a profitable enterprise because of that. Simply put, people wouldn't line the league's coffers if not for the presence of marketable stars playing a fun game that appeals to such an expansive subset of sporting sensibilities.
Nonetheless, if we're talking about jobs, it's not Pop's to please the fans. Again, his is to not only win games, but win titles, which he's done four times on behalf of residents of the River City.
And if Pop determines that it's in the best interest of that job to fly some of his players home from Orlando, then that's his call to make. Money from the fans' pockets may be used to pay Pop's salary, but there's no one-to-one relationship between the two parties that gives the former jurisdiction over the latter. Just ask the Workaholics guys.
If fans don't like what they're getting, they can vote with their feet and/or their remotes, or they can make their voices heard online. But they can't—or, rather, they shouldn't—expect their desire to see Timmy, Tony and Gino dictate whether or not Pop puts them in the game.
The league office would be the more appropriate scapegoat for the fans' outrage. Stern and his associates are the ones whose ultimate charge is the guardianship of the game (and the profit motives of doing so). They're the ones whose continued insistence on an 82-game schedule replete with back-to-backs, four games in five nights and grueling road trips has set the stage for tenured coaches of Pop's ilk to manage their rosters in a fashion that seems contradictory to the integrity of the sport itself.
If fans don't like it, they should take their case to the commish. They should demand a truncated, less taxing schedule, one that incentivizes consistent participation rather than occasional rest. They should demand shorter games that don't drag on through poor officiating and late-game desperation tactics. They should demand a change to the NBA draft lottery system so that teams, good or bad, don't have reason to "tank" in pursuit of long-term targets.
They could ask that Stern institute new rules governing roster management, particularly in the event of showcase games. But such would contradict recent doctrine as well as set the league on a slippery slope toward playing coach and GM for all 30 teams on a nightly basis.
Pop's move may have been brash, but more than anything, it was symptomatic of deeper issues concerning long-term player health and safety that have festered beneath the league's surface for years, if not decades. Suppose Pop was forced to play his stars in Miami and one or more of them, while running around fatigued, picked up a nagging injury. Suppose that injury kept said star(s) out for a period of time, or worse, that the injury in question led to another and another, until the player(s) in question had to sit out crucial games.
What then? Does the NBA reprimand the Spurs? Does it apologize for pushing the players and the team into an unfortunate situation? Does it twiddle its thumbs and look the other way?
This is but one can of worms among many that this debate can and possibly will open up. The fans are free to react to this conundrum however they so choose—good, bad or indifferent.
But if they want to direct their dissatisfaction wisely, they should do so not at Gregg Popovich for doing his job, but rather at David Stern for not doing his.