David Stern promised "substantial sanctions" for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's decision to send four players (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green) home before the team's nationally televised game with the Miami Heat on Thursday.
Stern followed up that promise with a hefty $250,000 fine on Friday (via Chicago Tribune).
Popovich's decision was met with contempt by the front office and league fans. It appears now that Stern's subsequent fine is drawing similar reactions.
Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he understood the reasoning behind the fine, but disagreed with Stern's move (according to Howard Ulman of the Associated Press). He said the fine was unnecessary and not even enough to discourage teams from doing what Popovich did—resting his players with the playoffs in mind.
While Popovich's decision may have opened itself to criticism (and clearly did the league no favors), it wasn't the egregious act that fine suggests it was. In fact, it was something that NBA coaches have done for years.
The only difference for this instance was the fact that Popovich made the call so early in the season. Resting players is a strategy traditionally employed near the end of the regular season, when playoff berths and seeds are clearer.
Whose decision was worse?
But Stern's decision to act was as confusing as it was wrong.
For starters, his move implies that games early in the season are more important than those that come later. If the NBA hadn't punished teams for this behavior in the past, then a precedent was set. And Stern just broke protocol.
Not to mention the implicit undertones that this game meant more because it was a matchup of two great teams. For a commissioner who has preached the importance of parity in the NBA (as he told New York radio station WFAN's Mike Francesa), the implication reeked of hypocrisy.
But this move could signal the beginning of a slippery slope for a league that seems to draw more conspiracy theorists than any other professional sport. It's the kind of micromanagement that signals that a commissioner's office has clearly overstepped its bounds.
Stern has played a pivotal role making the league as popular as it now is. But his prior actions steered clear of roster management—as they should have.
The commissioner may hold the most powerful position in the game, but that doesn't give him free rein to tell franchises how to run their teams. It's a dangerous path for the league office to follow, and, frankly this wasn't the first time Stern overexerted his influence.
He drew the wrath of fans last season when he axed a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers. The commissioner claimed that the league-owned New Orleans Hornets were not getting enough in the deal for him to approve it.
Commissioners are put in place to do what is best for their respective leagues. And that's what Stern thought he was doing when he reprimanded Popovich for what the commissioner saw as an act disrespectful to fans and the league itself.
What Stern failed to realize, though, is that Popovich's foremost priority lies in putting his Spurs team in the best position to compete for an NBA title. With San Antonio playing its fourth road game in five nights, the coach opted to buy his players an extra day of rest. The move was his way of best preparing his club for Saturday's Western Conference showdown with the conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies.
Stern's already announced his plans to retire on February 1, 2014 (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports). If this is the kind of action that will mark Stern's final season-plus, it could be a long 14 months for Popovich, the NBA and even the league's fanbase that the commissioner thought he was protecting.