When Gregg Popovich decided to rest four of the Spurs' best players last night—a decision made well in advance of their game against the Heat, if Pop is to be believed—he took all the air out of a hotly anticipated, nationally televised contest. In the kindest light, it was a savvy move by Popovich designed to keep his aging stars fresh through the end of the season. It was also unquestionably a "fuck you" to the NBA and, collaterally, its fans. Why did he have to rest his guys en masse? Why did he have to rest them against the Heat last night and not against, say, the Wizards on Monday?
David Stern, with his usual showboating heavyhandedness, promised "substantial sanctions" before the game. This is what Pop does, though. He reductios all the absurdums. If there's a hole in the rules, he doesn't just walk through it; he throws a parade and marches through it, beating a drum with one hand and twirling a baton with the other. This latest was a variation on the same theme that brought us Hack-a-Shaq and "DNP-Old." He is as cynical as the rules allow him to be. If you don't like it, Popovich says in effect, then change the rules.
(And let's not shed too many tears for the fans here: I, and at least two of my fellow Deadspinners, turned on the game in its final minutes solely in the hopes of seeing the Spurs' scrubs dunk David Stern and his prerogative through the hoop, which they very nearly did.)
The hypocrisy in Stern's statement is easy to spot. After all, he presides over a league in which bad teams lose on purpose in order to secure a better spot in the draft lottery. But Stern isn't coming down on the Spurs because they purposely diminished the quality of the NBA's product; he's coming down on them because they did it so openly. If you're going to undermine the integrity of David Stern's NBA, you better keep your goddamn voice down while you do it.
Last night was a good encapsulation of the Stern era. Popovich's move laid bare a structural issue with the NBA—the regular season is a long slog through a minefield to get to the long slog of the playoffs; anyone taking the former too seriously jeopardizes the prospect for success in the latter—to which Stern responded with some theatrically angry PR. Because this is what Stern does: He tries to fine and fulminate his way out of his problems. Whether it's tanking or Tim Donaghy, everything is treated foremost as an image problem requiring only superficial solutions. Pop will get his penalty and his lecture, because Stern would rather punish the people who lift the curtain on the puppet show than address the tangles in the strings.