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Popovich message to Stern?

I've read a lot of different articles on the issue of Popovich resting 4 players for the Miami game and Stern issuing sanctions. I thought I would offer my point of view.

Much has been made about the NBA being a product that is being marketed and needing to make the product the best it can be. Hence the sanctions to protect the product. Conspiracy theorists have long held that the NBA is rigged, the trades, the schedules, the refs, injuries, media, what have you. And the evidence they present is compelling. I think the question is not if Stern and co. are manipulating or arranging things in ways they believe will enhance the product they represent and produce more revenue, but how much.

Flip Saunders said there are like 6 or 7 compelling games each year, and this was one of them. I would disagree and say that there are probably 4-5 times that many between the top teams in country. However, perhaps there are only a few games that are really compelling to the nation at large (yes it is a global watched sports, but mostly it is the locals that spend money). Most people don't want to see Spurs play Grizz, because the vast majority of fans simply don't care who wins.

Last night's game was a big one, nationally televised, and on a night with only one other game. It was a big game because it was the league darlings, playing the league's measuring stick. Did you catch what I said before about most fans not caring who won in the Spurs/Grizz game? Last night's game was compelling because it was supposed to be a test of "How good are the Heat?" It was supposed to be fuel for the "Heat Index". It was supposed to generate all sorts of chatter AFTER the fact. The vast majority of fans wanted the Heat to win. And perhaps the league did too, because winning against, but especially blowing out, the Spurs, would up the talk.

There are over 1000 games in an NBA regular season, but again, there are a few that are really big. You can't tell me that a commissioner interested in marketing his product, and building his brand, isn't actively reviewing the schedule before it is released, to make sure that he gets what he wants out of those few key games. That being the case, you can't tell me that it is "just the way the schedule worked out" that in the previous 4 days, the Spurs played 3 away games, and Miami had no games at all. This wasn't about "putting the best product on the floor". If it was that, the schedule would have been changed. You'll never see a Lakers/Heat matchup with one of the teams playing their 4th game in five nights and the home team playing their 1st in 5 nights. It wouldn't be a fair representation of where each team is.

Popovich knows all of this and more. He said that when the schedule came out in July, he made the decision to rest guys for this game. He said it was a "no brainer". What made it a no brainer? Why this game? Why not leave guys at home for Toronto, and/or Washington, or even Orlando? Why did he make this decision back in July, before injuries, before knowing the standings, before any of it? Because it was a trap game. Whether the league engineered it that way or just didn't bother to fix it, the game was a setup. No team is able to put it's best product on the floor for the 4th game in 5 days. If the Spurs played it straight and they lost, which seemed likely before the tip-off with two injured and the big guns tired, it has an impact on the morale of both teams. You can try to make excuses and all but your mind still keeps coming back to, "we played them and we lost, can we beat these guys?" And the other side gets a morale boost. Pop wisely avoided that completely. Spurs lost the game. But won the battle. There was no risk of losing morale, they were expected to lose. That they played it so close just boosted team morale and especially the morale of all of those second tier guys. Plus we got the rest for 4 of our guys. Brilliant.

One could go a little farther and say that the league was actually setting up the Spurs to be the sacrificial lamb to feed the media machine behind the Heat. I think a case could be made for that. And it could explain some things about how Pop handled this and how Stern responded. You can just imagine Popovich looking over the schedule, and saying, "Oh look what they're trying to do here. That's not going to happen." He could have announced it in July. He could have announced it at the beginning of the road trip. He waited until the announcement would have the most impact. You can just imagine the non-verbal message to Stern, "You set us up to get embarrassed on national TV. If it is that important to you that we lose this game, fine. But we'll do it on our terms. And we'll shine a spotlight on this whole setup in the process. You'll be the one exposed and embarrassed on national TV. I'm going to make it obvious what I think about this thing. We're already down 2. I'm taking the big 3. And one more for good measure. I'm going to play this game with 9 guys that nobody wants on their team. Ti-a-go Splitter." Maybe I'm off, but it just looks to me like this was a case of Popovich informing Stern that they won't take sucker punches "for the good of the product," without saying a word against the league or verbally complaining about the schedule - which BTW, would have resulted in a fine as well. And Stern got the message loud and clear, and had to do something or appear impotent. Not that he appears all that strong. $250k to an NBA team? I'm sure most donate more than that to charities.

What do you think?

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