Does this fine represent a turning point for David Stern? No one understands the value of star players better than Stern, but in fining the Spurs, he's essentially saying that the health and well-being of the Spurs' stars are less important than the league's national TV deal. What's a greater disservice to the NBA: No Duncan in November or no healthy stars come playoff time?
-- Andy, Chicago
I don't think Stern was undermining the health and well-being of the Spurs' stars, Andy. Let's put it this way: If Popovich had sat his four players on the bench in uniform instead of sending them home before the game, then I don't see how Stern could have fined the Spurs $250,000. It would be idiotic to fine a coach for not putting certain players into a specific game under these circumstances. I would hope we'll never see that happen.
This incident had everything to do with the ever-growing tension between the sport and the business of entertainment. It was one of those mistakes made by all kinds of big organizations like the NBA when one franchise doesn't recognize its impact on the rest of the company. In this case, it's up to San Antonio owner Peter Holt to see the big picture, and to find common ground between the needs of the Spurs and the needs of the NBA. Popovich's job is to do what is best for his franchise; it's Holt's responsibility to make sure that his team does not hurt the larger business goals of the league. That's why the $250,000 fine was levied not on Popovich but on the Spurs -- and paid by Holt.
Enjoyed your James Harden/OKC article, but I wonder why if the Thunder were so committed to bringing back Harden they couldn't have gone from 95 percent to 100 percent -- no real difference in cost, especially while asking Harden to stay a backup and reduce his chances of being All-NBA. They probably lost their shot at the title this year, and having watched a lot of Kevin Martin games, he can't be counted on in the clutch and is very injury-prone.
-- Brian, Davis, Calif.
Thanks, Brian. The Thunder believed they were offering him as much as they could afford. The precedent was established by Russell Westbrook in his contract negotiations last January. Westbrook accepted less money than Kevin Durant in order to re-sign with Oklahoma City. After persuading Westbrook to take less than the maximum salary he could have demanded, the Thunder could not have turned around and given the max to Harden. It would have been a bad-faith gesture to Westbrook, and it could have disrupted the chemistry of the entire organization.
Harden was clearly the third star in OKC. He rarely took the last shot in the final seconds -- those shots went to Durant or Westbrook.
It comes down to this with Harden: The Thunder needed to find out whether he was committed to their group mission. If they were going to win a championship with him, then he needed to be satisfied with his role as the third star to complement Durant and Westbrook. If he wasn't going to be satisfied with that complementary role, if he was going to need more shots and a bigger role in the clutch, then the team was never going to hold together and succeed anyway.
All of this was laid out in detail during the negotiations that were held separately with Westbrook and Harden. Westbrook chose to take less money in order to play with Durant; Harden declined to accept less money in order to remain with them. I'll say it again: I'm not criticizing Harden, at age 23, for attempting to find out how big of a star he can become. At the same time, I don't see how OKC can be blamed for the choice Harden made. James, Wade and Bosh took less money in order to win a championship in Miami, but they were older players who had already fulfilled themselves individually; it's obvious that Harden wanted to find out who he was as a player. And there is nothing wrong with that.
It seems like NBA teams are using the D-League more actively this year than in years past. Are teams finally realizing the value of having a farm system where their young guys can get a little more seasoning?
-- Jeff Jordan, Tampa, Fla.
Teams are recognizing the value of the D-League, Jeff. Eleven NBA franchises now are affiliated with a D-League team of their own, which means they can send players up and down in the way that baseball franchises manage their minor-league affiliates. Twenty percent of NBA rosters boast D-League experience. Anyone who is fatigued by the financial hypocrisy of college basketball should be hoping for the day when the D-League (or some other professional enterprise) can emerge as a developmental alternative for teenage stars who have no interest in pretending to attend college for a season or two on their way to the NBA.
Is there anyone in the East who can really challenge the Heat or should we start printing the Eastern Conference champion T-shirts tomorrow?
-- Sal, Baltimore
Based on what we've seen in the opening month, Sal, the best hope for everyone else in the East is that something will go wrong for Miami. Not one of the Heat's rivals is behaving like a realistic challenger. The Knicks don't have Amar'e Stoudemire, the Pacers don't have Danny Granger, the Bulls don't have Derrick Rose, the 76ers don't have Andrew Bynum, the Hawks unloaded Joe Johnson, the Nets' Deron Williams is facing the possibility of surgery for bone spurs after this season and the Celtics don't yet know who they are. A challenger will emerge over the course of the long season, but in the meantime Miami has access to a full rotation led by the NBA's best player at his peak age. As long as the Heat stay healthy, I don't see anyone capable of beating them.
Outside of Damian Lillard (and Anthony Davis before he got hurt), which rookie has impressed you most?
-- Michael Rice, Oklahoma
It's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Bobcats have already won more games than they did all of last season and he is making plays of all kinds. Kidd-Gilchrist's jump shot still needs to develop, but that hasn't lessened his impact. He has been instantly aggressive at both ends while putting up numbers without needing plays run for him. He is imposing himself upon the game as an unfinished player, and as his skills improve, his impact will continue to grow.