Bernucca: Influenced by national TV money, Stern shows he is just a casual fan

commissionerDavid Stern is disingenuous.

How’s that for one of those million-dollar words that the NBA commissioner loves to use when talking to the hoi polloi about basketball?

In slapping the San Antonio Spurs with a $250,000 fine for resting their trio of stars in a nationally televised game, Stern said in his customary, quite lawyerly fashion, “The result here is dictated by the totality of the facts in this case.”

As he often does, Stern sounded like he was sharing a matching black robe with Scalia and Sotomayor and penning the majority opinion in the Citizens United case rather than ruling on a lousy ballgame.

Last season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich rested Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on multiple occasions, including a pair of games where he sat all three at the same time: February 21 at Portland, which resulted in a 137-97 loss, and April 9 at Utah, which resulted in a 91-84 loss.

While those moves may have been influenced by the lockout-induced compressed schedule, Duncan also was rested at strategic points during the previous two seasons. He sat out vs. Oklahoma City on Jan. 13, 2010 and vs. Charlotte on March 19, 2011. So Popovich has been doing this for a while.

The amount of NBA fines incurred by the Spurs for those previous instances was zero dollars.

Of course, none of those games was on national TV, which the NBA views as a calfrope to the casual fan. Games on TNT, ESPN and ABC are a tool used to grab the attention of the viewer who could generally take or leave the NBA and hope that the presence of stars (and, with some luck, a compelling game) makes that viewer a convert.

Stern often refers the networks as the NBA’s partners, which they are. TNT, ESPN and ABC are paying the NBA $7.44 billion for the rights to broadcast games for an eight-year period ending in 2016, an average of $31 million per team per season. For that money, Stern would like the NBA to be presented in a positive light and the networks would like the stars to play.

Money can often make for strange bedfellows. Following his fine, Stern found an unlikely friend in Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who usually would argue that the world is flat if the commissioner said it was round.

“I tried to find every angle not to (agree with Stern), but I do know who pays our bills,” Cuban said over the weekend. “That is the driver for all things financial in sports — period, end of story. And when you (bleep) with the money train, you get (fined).”

So if Stern and his biggest antagonist were able to find common ground on this issue, is the commissioner being disingenuous? Of course he is.

Stern can stress the importance of nationally televised games in any fashion he chooses – customary discourse, cautionary tales, six-figure fines – while conveniently neglecting what is obvious to passionate NBA fans: In the realm of the regular season, the Spurs-Heat game was no more impactful than any of San Antonio’s other 81 games.  In fact, it was less important.

San Antonio’s next game was a home contest Saturday vs. Memphis, which led the Southwest Division. On the NBA tiebreaker ladder, head-to-head, division and conference games are much higher than interconference games. It is more than fair to assume that any team playing consecutive games against teams as good as the Heat and Grizzlies – including the Spurs – would be thrilled with a split. But a win over the Grizzlies was clearly more valuable.

Don’t forget that the NBA’s Matt Winick actually drew up the schedule that had the Spurs playing the finale of a six-game road trip as their fourth game in five nights against the well-rested Heat on national TV. So it’s OK if Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are gassed and get run out of the gym, as long as TNT can put them on the marquee.

And where was Stern last April? Popovich sat his three stars against the Jazz, who were in a four-team dogfight for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference and gained a clear advantage. Two games later, the Spurs’ three stars were back in the lineup for a win over the Suns. Utah ultimately made the playoffs; Phoenix didn’t.

No one should be surprised by Stern’s questionable punishment of the Spurs, because in addition to being disingenuous, he also has been highly predictable. What appears on national TV has been driving the decisions by the executives at Olympic Tower for quite some time.

It was why Rasheed Wallace was fined for answering every question after a televised playoff game with the phrase, “Both teams played hard” when in fact he had been saying the same thing to local media for weeks to the point where the Trail Blazers were including it on their postgame quotesheets.

It was why the media’s repeated pleas to have All-Stars announced during the day so they could actually get some reaction from the players while at practice or shootaround has fallen on deaf ears and been given exclusively to TNT to air in prime time prior to a televised game.

It was why the discipline in part was so swift and severe in the wake of The Malice at the Palace, which in case anyone forgot was a Pacers-Pistons game televised by ESPN.

Stan Van Gundy with handsIt was why the wonderfully candid Stan Van Gundy was inches away from a studio host gig with ESPN but suddenly was cast aside for someone far less knowledgable – and far less likely to question the quality of the butter on his bread.

And it was why Thomas Robinson got a two-game suspension for throwing the same elbow on League Pass that Metta World Peace got seven games for by throwing on ABC.

However, the greatest character flaw exhibited by Stern is not that he has been disingenuous or predictable. His greatest flaw is that the combination of those two traits have created a long track record of allowing national TV and its money to establish a tacit NBA policy of profit over purity. And that makes Stern something far worse than disingenuous or predictable.

It makes him a casual fan.

TRIVIA: Who is the all-time leading scorer in Los Angeles Clippers franchise history? Answer below.


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