When Gregg Popovich decided to rest four of his best players against the Heat on Thursday his farsightedness was in play on two levels: 1) At the end of a long road trip Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, all on the wrong side of 30, would benefit greatly from an extra day of rest and 2) Pop wanted to prove that his reserves could compete with the reigning NBA champs.

It was a genius move meant to preserve the aging bodies of his stars and instill confidence in his bench. And as you probably know by now, David Stern wants to punish him. Tyranny restored, David. Well done.

Stern's "apology" to NBA fans, the poor souls forced to watch a hard-fought and extremely competitive game, was not only ridiculous but made clear what we as basketball fans have known for a long time, namely that Stern cares nothing about the game itself and only the entertainment value that the NBA provides.

Stern's autocratic gesture got me thinking about a very small, mostly unnoticed news story from a few of weeks ago ...

Nov. 9 marked the first time in more than five years that former NBA ref Tim Donaghy attended a professional basketball game. Instead of prancing down the sideline with a whistle, he was seated in the bleachers, wearing normal clothes, totally incognito.

A half-decade after Donaghy ruined his life by betting on his livelihood he watched the Knicks host the Mavericks in Madison Square Garden while studying for his new job at Danny Biancullo's handicapping site "dannybwins.com."

On the surface the career move seems like a recovering alcoholic taking a job as a sommelier, but in reality the "consulting" gig was the only offer Donaghy had on the table after his probation ended on Nov 4.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to any NBA fan that reputable companies aren't clamoring for Donaghy's professional services. His name will never be worth the baggage. Tim will probably end up opening a store in Vegas next to Pete Rose and sell autographed posters of Danny Crawford and Steve Javie making double-dribbling calls.

Dear Kid,
If it makes you feel better, I don't know what the hell a Defensive Three Seconds is either.
All the best,
Steve Javie

But now that the dust has settled on the scandal and the league has long gone back to business as usual, I realize something: I believe Tim Donaghy. I believe all the things he said in his 60 Minutes interview. I believe the claims he made in his book. I believe the accusations he described in a four-page letter to Brooklyn's United States District Court in 2008 in which he claimed that NBA executives directed referees "to manipulate games" to "boost ticket sales and television ratings."

I no longer think Tim Donaghy is the bad guy.

Looking back at his allegations, specifically about Dick Bavetta being David Stern's "go-to" guy in important games (contests where the NBA has a significant monetary interest in the outcome), I can't help but loathe David and Dick far more than Donaghy. The spindly 72-year-old Bavetta looks like a puppet and every time I see him running down the court I imagine Stern in the rafters manipulating his strings with a maniacal grin on his face.

The NBA, after all, is David's little game. It's been Stern's marketing brilliance and business acumen that have made the National Basketball Association into the juggernaut it is today and increased his paycheck into the $20-plus million range this season. Do you think he'd let a little thing like "integrity" get in his way?

Even though last season's lockout undoubtedly tarnished Stern's legacy, the Donaghy situation, due to the NBA's excellent PR team, didn't put a dent in Stern's armor when it should have been the debacle that led to his demise. He successfully piled all of the blame on Donaghy and the league's long-term image hasn't been affected. It was almost as if fans didn't want to process what had just happened -- namely that the game they love had been exposed as totally and unequivocally corrupt.

Donaghy had been cheating and revealed our worst fears about game manipulation. He told us that he was a small piece of the puzzle, that the NBA was rigged, and we put our hands over our ears and drowned out his words with incoherent shouting like a teenage girl avoiding her mother's reprimand. We knew his incriminating accusations had validity. We watched Game 6 of the 2002 playoffs when Bavetta and his crew kept the Lakers in the game against the Kings with atrocious call after atrocious call until Kobe, Shaq, and the dollar signs attached to their faces being on TV, emerged victorious. We watched countless other games where the calls were too horrendous not to have an ulterior motive. And still, when he confirmed our anxieties, we let David Stern get up on a podium, pin Donaghy as a rogue Machiavelli, and nodded complacently.

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We didn't want our game ruined. Donaghy's claims had legitimacy, too much legitimacy, and even though he had game footage to back up his allegations, and an FBI investigation that essentially concluded, "he's not lying," we pushed the thoughts of fraudulence into the back of our minds and forced ourselves to move forward without taking the time to dwell on what had just happened. I guess it's the way all males deal with all earth-shattering emotions.

Among Stern's most telling comments came during the collective bargaining agreement last year in his final stand as commissioner. From Adrian Wojnarowski's 2011 column:

... Stern would barely even look at [Billy] Hunter when Hunter handed him the microphone. And soon, Stern started reciting his résumé, his decades of labor fights and legal battles in the NBA. Here's how much the NBA was worth and here's where I've brought it, he said. Everyone could see the anger rising within him, but no one expected the words that tumbled out of his mouth.

Stern told the room he knows where "the bodies are buried" in the NBA, witnesses recounted, because he had buried some of them himself.

Wow.

Looking back at his regime and the numerous draft lottery "coincidences," the Chris Paul trade fiasco, Donaghy scandal, and numerous other shady dealings, that quote, in my opinion, says it all.

Do you remember Stern's reaction earlier this year when Jim Rome confronted him about the draft being fixed? He didn't laugh it off. He didn't coolly explain that although the odds were slight, all of the results were statistically feasible, yada, yada, yada. No. Stern got very defensive. Like Bruce Bowen guarding a team's best player defensive. In my experiences, call me crazy, people tend to get defensive when they're hiding something. Rome found a dead body and Stern wasn't about to let him dig it up.

Every NBA fan knows that David Stern is running a business. He doesn't care about the "sport" of basketball -- he cares about his league's bottom line. And as someone who loves the sport, who spent a majority of his childhood living and breathing basketball, believing in its sanctity, I can't believe it's taken this long to confront the reality that the NBA, in many ways, is a sham.

The real victims are the referees who approach each game with focus and integrity. Who are happy with their six-figure paychecks and small place in the world's most dynamic game. These men and women do their gray shirts proud.

The important thing to remember is that when it comes to the NBA -- be a conspiracy theorist. Tim Donaghy was a gambling addict, but he's not lying about the culture.

When looking at Donaghy's gambling success, the statistic worth noting is that he was won 75 percent of the games he wasn't officiating. Through the "briefs" communicated to referees before games, combined with well-documented referee bias, Donaghy could pick who was going to cover the spread with unbelievable efficiency.

Donaghy's no hero for coming clean -- far from it. If he got caught in one lie to the FBI, he would quadruple his sentence. He was looking out for No. 1. But to suggest that Donaghy was an outlier?

The Pop Saga represents the latest example of Stern's omnipotence and reveals once again that the refs, players, even the most powerful coaches, are just part of the show. For future reference: using understudies in the NBA equates to a $250,000 fine.

-- Email Tim Livingston at timlivingston0sports@yahoo.com.

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