This is, or should be, a very difficult ruling for David Stern. It’s a morality call, not simply deciding the length of a suspension from a fight, because no written rule was broken and Gregg Popovich can rightly claim that not doing everything in his power to help the Spurs win the championship would be the real breach of integrity.
This is a block-charge call for Stern. He has made up his mind that something must be done – see the Thursday night statement from the commissioner that “substantial sanctions will be forthcoming” – and in assessing the exact discipline must also begin work on putting specifics into this very grey area.
The questions that need to be answered:
- Why now? Why the sudden shift on Thursday night in Miami as opposed to when Popovich used the strategy, apparently without any negative feedback from the league, last season? He may not have sent anyone home, as was the case against the Heat, but whether Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green are on the bench or on their couch in San Antonio shouldn’t make a difference.
- Does it make a difference that Spurs-Heat was a TNT game? The networks pay serious monopoly money to televise games and isn’t much interested in a night with the San Antonio scout team, no matter how compelling the broadcast became as the Spurs stayed close.
- What factor is the calendar? Will Stern be more understanding if a team wants to sit players in the final week of the regular season, as part of playoff prep? That is much different than ramping up for December.
- What is the exact number of players that can rest at the same time? Could the Spurs have avoided the storm if they rested two players one night and two another?
- Isn’t the league simply encouraging teams to turn lineup decisions into courses on creative writing? Duncan has the flu, Ginobili woke up with a sore back, Parker is dealing with a personal matter. Somebody prove the Spurs wrong.
- Is the league also prepared to look hard at late-season lineups, including minutes, by teams bound for the lottery, in case any had some crazy notion that losing games would help them secure a better draft pick? Not that anyone would ever, ever do that.
Stern is walking into precedent-setting territory, as is his right and responsibility. When he acts, he must act with a full explanation. This is about substantial sanctions, but also a clear understanding.