Gregg Popovich vs. David Stern: Everyone is wrong, everyone is right

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Gregg Popovich benched his stars against the Heat Thursday night, David Stern promised there would be "significant sanctions" in response, and it's all fantastic.

To recap: Gregg Popovich shocked reporters Thursday afternoon when he announced he'd sent the Spurs' three superstars home to San Antonio to rest after a busy month on the road. This meant that the Spurs would play the Heat without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili in a game that was slated for national television because everyone wanted to see Manu, Parker, and Duncan play the Heat. Then David Stern released a statement on all this, saying, "I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the San Antonio Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming.'' So, that's what happened Thursday night. (Also: The Heat won, 105-100.)

And people are NOT HAPPY about this. Whether they are disgusted by the Spurs resting all three superstars or by David Stern promising "sanctions" because a coach decided it was in his team's best competitive interest to rest, people are NOT HAPPY.


This is one of those insufferable 2012 controversies that's readymade to become a huuuuuge deal in today's newscycyle - two perfectly symmetric sides for Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless to argue about - but destined to be completely forgotten by like, next Tuesday.

Because who really cares whether Pop tainted the "integrity" of a Heat-Spurs game in November? And of all the ridiculous things David Stern has said and done, even if he suspends Popovich for a game and fines the Spurs 100 grand for this, does that even rank in the top 1,000 of Stern power moves over the past 30 years?

More than anything else, it just makes me appreciate Gregg Popovich and David Stern, two of the most lovably dickish humans in the history of the world.

On Pop's side: What an amazing case of trolling everyone and deliberately sucking the fun out of everything. Bill Belichick is jealous he didn't think of this first. In the coach's defense, it's his job to do what's best for his team, and if he thought tanking an inevitably intense game with Heat was best for the Spurs, then that's his right. European soccer teams bench players periodically throughout the season and it works just fine. It's strategy. On the other this A) never happens so blatantly in the NBA, and B) the Spurs played an awful Orlando team Wednesday night and easily could've rested their stars then, clearing the way for them to play on national TV in Miami and NOT completely screw over the NBA and a national TV audience. But he didn't, because he's Gregg Popovich.

On Stern's side: Where is the rule that allows him to levy "Serious Sanctions" against a team for resting stars? This isn't the first time it's happened - Stern also fined the Lakers in 1990 and 1985 - but that doesn't make it any less ridiculous. Has Stern even watched the NBA in the past few years? Teams tank ENTIRE SEASONS without repercussions. Read this Wizards article and Ted Leonsis saying, "I have been transparent and ... warned folks that we would be bad before we were good." Where are the apologies to ticket-buying fans for THAT? So ... are the Spurs being punished because they are actually good? Or because they were playing on national TV? The answer is yes to both, but it's mainly because David Stern is pissed, so David Stern is going to get all pissy. That's what makes him David Stern!

But can we all agree to let it end there? Sports are great for a lot of reasons, but they are not important enough to get FIRED UP about something so completely meaningless. I can already imagine the column that Adrian Wojnarowski's writing this very second, and watching him slowly lose his mind is great but you know what? I don't care if David Stern suspends Popovich for a game and fines a team that's worth $300 million and will make the fine back with one game's playoff revenue. Likewise, I don't care that we didn't get to see the Heat beat the full-strength Spurs last night.

Seriously: We'll forget 99.8 percent of all the games we watch this month, let alone over the course of an entire season or longer. What we remember instead are the handful of moments and characters that were unlike anything we'd ever seen. In other words, characters exactly like Pop and Stern. People who have driven us crazy, made us laugh, succeeded over and over again, and then repeated the entire process for good measure.

Maybe you follow sports to live and die with every second of the Heat-Spurs regular season blockbuster, but I watch because it's a whole separate universe full of stories that make life more entertaining. This is one of those. It's all so stupid and so hilarious, and everyone's all pissed off, and of course it starts and ends with two of the biggest curmudgeons in NBA history going head-to-head. I was never going to remember the Spurs-Heat game, but I hope I'll remember this "scandal" forever even if I'm the only one. It's perfect.

Anyway, if you're looking to have an actual debate about this, Inside The NBA hit on the key points. We pick things up mid-conversation from Thursday's post-game show, after Ernie Johnson and Chris Webber argued that certain fans deserved to see the Spurs' stars with the ticket they bought.

KENNY SMITH: "The same kid who missed out today was gonna miss out on Game 78."

ERNIE JOHNSON: "You take that into consideration if you're gonna go to a game late in the year. ... You know late in the year, that's when this happens."

Fair. It's one thing to rest stars at the end of the year, but do it on national TV in November in a game that fans nationwide were looking forward to all week, and that's being obnoxious just for the hell of it. The Spurs played the Wizards and Magic within the past five days. They really couldn't have rested their stars in those games?

KENNY: "No I don't! Why?"

ERNIE: "Because it happens all the time at the end of the year."

KENNY: "But who started it?"

This hits at the core of the objection to any Stern sanctions, and it makes sense. 60 years ago this could have been Red Auerbach shocking fans and media by resting his starters at the end of the year. In hindsight, wouldn't it be pretty ridiculous for a Commissioner to fine him for something that now happens constantly and makes complete sense? The only difference here is Popovich possibly starting a new trend by resting his stars and forfeiting a big regular season game.

KENNY: "Popovich is starting it!"

And David Stern is ending it.

That's what's behind any "significant sanctions". Stern's setting a precedent for the league's best teams to play their best players in nationally televised games, because the NBA is a superstar-driven sport and an NBA team benching all its superstars on national TV is ridiculous. It's better for the NBA when the best players play on TV, and this doesn't need to be more complicated than that.

Don't you see? David Stern is doing what's best for his league the same way Gregg Popovich was doing what's best for his team, and neither of them give a shit what you think.

Kinda makes me love 'em both.

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