On the seventh day, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers rested. That was precisely what their absences on Sunday amounted to, and not the injury-related DNPs the Heat claimed they were. Nine games remain in the regular season, making this the time when teams in comfortable playoff position begin to rest their stars for the postseason. James, allegedly nursing a sore right hamstring, and Wade, recovering from a sprained ankle, certainly were not too hurt to tackle their teammates in the hallway after Chris Bosh‘s game-winner.
Now Stern has a dilemma of his own making. The Heat’s opponent on Sunday was the Spurs, who infamously sent home Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green rather than play them in Miami in late November. The commissioner fined the Spurs $250,000 for doing “a disservice to the league and our fans,” according to the NBA’s statement, and prompted Celtics coach Doc Rivers to declare he would rest his veteran players whenever he wished, thank you very much. Now, Stern has to be at least as uncompromising with the Heat as he was with the Spurs.
The irony of the matter is that, had Stern done nothing back in the winter, Sunday’s events showed that the Spurs and Heat would have evened everything out themselves. In the Heat’s eyes, the Spurs screwed over Heat fans who paid good money to see Duncan in Miami, and the Heat returned the favor to San Antonio fans on Sunday. An eye was taken for an eye, and even with only one good eye each, the Heat and Spurs could probably still beat most other teams.
The difference between the teams’ approaches, which the NBA surely will hide behind if it declines to reprimand the Heat, was that James, Wade and Chalmers were officially given injury-related designations to explain their absences. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green were merely labeled “NWT” — “not with team” — and were reportedly flying home commercial when their teammates tipped off in Miami.
Stern is now in a tough spot. The league may find it troublesome to fine a team for having hurt players, but if it fails to punish the Heat, it will only feed the perception among fans that the NBA practices favoritism for “King James” and his cronies. The possibility for conspiracy theories is endless. Did Paul Pierce really feel soreness in his ankle on Sunday, or were the Celtics merely building an excuse for the inevitable rest to come Monday in Minnesota? Is Ginobili’s hamstring as bad as the Spurs say, or are they just letting the 35-year-old guard recuperate for the playoffs? Will 37-year-old Ray Allen suddenly be stricken by a mysterious, 24-hour illness during one of the Heat’s three remaining back-to-backs?
Stern greased this slippery slope himself. He may not enjoy the ride down.