Monday, May 21, 2007

S.A.-Utah: The Ultimate Anti-Conspiracy Series;
What *Should* The Fighting Rule Be?

With all of the crap that the NBA takes in terms of every bad call becoming grist for the mill for a new conspiracy theory, it's worth noting that this year's Western Conference Finals proves they either really screwed things up (I wouldn't put it past Stu Jackson to screw up even the conspiracies) or the whole concept is perhaps, you know, a load of b.s.

To wit, you do realize that we could have Phoenix and Golden State playing first-one-to-150-wins games of unbelievably relentless up-and-down basketball right now, in games that would have drawn in tons on casual fans and sent ratings through the roof, right? It would have been a nearly perfect series at a time when the NBA is desperate to curb a seemingly endless ratings slide.

Instead, we have Utah vs. San Antonio, which will send the ratings down the toilet. Now, the Jazz did prove to be more fun to watch vs. G.S. than expected, especially when Kirilenko was flying around all over the place, but c'mon, they don't have any marquee stars and they are about 1/100th as appealing the wild Warriors.

As far as Spurs or Suns, there seems to be some sentiment that the Amare/Diaw suspensions were actually *proof* of the latest conspiracy, that David Stern and the league office actually *favors* San Antonio. To that idea, I merely point to this piece from Sports Media Watch, entitled "Anyone who thinks the NBA is rigged for the Spurs to advance is an idiot", which addresses that particular issue more directly and succinctly than I could ever hope to. Here's the first point:
    The San Antonio Spurs have played in three NBA Finals. Each year, the series the team played in saw monumental ratings declines from the previous year.

    The 1999 NBA Finals, featuring San Antonio versus the New York Knicks, was down 40% from the previous year. The 2003 NBA Finals, featuring San Antonio versus the New Jersey Nets, was down 36% from the previous year. And the 2005 NBA Finals, featuring San Antonio versus the Detroit Pistons, was down 29% from the previous year.

San Antonio vs. Utah instead of Phoenix vs. Golden State is about the clearest proof we've had that there are no conspiracies inside the NBA since Utah got all the calls in beating the Lakers in the playoffs in back-to-back years in '97 and '98. Even someone as blind as Bennett Salvatore ( i.e., an incompetent ref, but not a crooked one) can see that.

WHAT *SHOULD* THE RULE BE?
Slightly related to the conspiracy talk is the continued talk that the Spurs series win over the Suns is tainted by the Game 5 suspensions. Like most basketball fans, I was very disappointed that Amare and Boris were not able to play. But while I have some sympathy for Diaw's situation, I have none for Amare's. It was a clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the rule - he ran far from the bench area, toward the altercation, and did not restrain himself, it was the coaches who had to do so. He *could* have escalated the situation, even though he did not. In my opinion, he has no one to blame but himself.

Last week, Henry Abbott asked this question on True Hoop about the rules which led to the suspensions: "It's the nuclear deterrent approach to peacemaking. Is there a better way?"

Amidst all the hysterics from people complaining about the injustice of it all and how terrible the rule is, I have yet to hear a suggestion for a change in the rule which makes sense, if the goal is to minimize fighting.

I thought this roundtable of answers on ESPN.com to the question "Should the rule about leaving the bench be changed or eliminated?" touched upon the multiple relevant sides of the issue.

My comments are below, as signified by "TPA >>>"

Henry Abbott: This rule has been a big part of the reason that the public doesn't think the NBA is a brawler's league anymore. If the public can stomach more fights -- like there used to be -- then sure, ditch the rule. But if everyone's going to stop buying tickets and moan about "thugs" whenever punches are thrown, they'll have to have this rule or something like it, because once everyone leaves the bench, things can get really ugly really fast.

TPA >>> This is an important point because it's the backbone of the rule. While the NBA has real motivations to minimize fighting for reasons of player safety (and fan safety, too, in this era of courtside seating), image-related reasons are obviously a major motivation behind these rules.

And I can't really blame them, after seeing the overheated reaction to the glorified slapfight between the Knicks and the Nuggets this season, treated like the scary sequel to Auburn Hills even though it was no more threatening than the average baseball beanbrawl which draws yuks and guffaws from observers. The public has clearly shown to have much less tolerance for NBA fights than for baseball or hockey fights.

The goal from the NBA's perspective has to be the absolute minimization of bench-clearing brawls.

Jon Barry: It definitely should be changed, because the way it is now, oftentimes the crime doesn't fit the punishment. Just stepping off the bench should not warrant a suspension, especially in this setting of the playoffs. It is clear the rule should be changed to a suspension if you enter the fray. If you stay away from the altercation you should not be suspended.

TPA >>> This opinion has been voiced a lot - Amare shouldn't have been suspended because he didn't actually fight. This misses the point to me: Amare *could* have escalated the situation by the way he approached the altercation. That is what the rule is intended to stop: any chance the situation could get out of hand.

If what Amare did is deemed legal, then the next time, 3 guys will approach the altercation, and the next time, 5 guys will approach it, and eventually, you will have more fights. If the rule is that there is no penalty as long as you don't fight, well, that just leads to more fights. If the redline is the outskirts of the altercation, rather than the bench vicinity, then that will eventually lead to more fights actually occurring.

John Hollinger: As with most things like this, it's the law of unintended consequences. The rule was put in as a response to a few incidents, most notably a Knicks player charging the court in a suit in Phoenix, but it doesn't cover every contingency and there's no nuance to it. Here's one idea: Make the suspension be for only a quarter or a half if the player didn't have any meaningful participation in the fracas.

TPA >>> Suspending a player for a regular season game instead of a playoff game if they don't actually fight is another variation of the rule that I've heard. I have the same problem with these variations as I had with the Barry suggestion above: if the rule is not strong enough, I don't believe it will actually deter guys from leaving the bench.

Tim Legler: The wording needs to be changed. There has to be room for a split-second reaction from the players on the bench. As long as a player or coach recognizes his transgression and quickly gets off the court before engaging in any physical contact with an opposing player, a suspension should not be warranted. The NBA office has a lot of smart guys. They should use some of their best judgment to avoid the most highly anticipated series of the year being impacted by great players not participating.

TPA >>> On balance, I agree with this suggestion, and it's the reason that I felt sympathy for Diaw's situation: he reacted emotionally, but then realized what he was doing, gathered himself, and stopped. In a perfect world, I think the rule should be altered to allow for an emotional reaction without a suspension, as long as the player gathers himself after he has time to think. And again, Amare did *not* do this. Even after a split-second reaction, he did not stop approaching the altercation until he was restrained. Even with a rule change such as this, a suspension would still have been warranted for him.

While I do agree with this kind of rule change, it becomes very difficult to adjudicate, because then you are trying to judge the intent of the player - did they leave the bench to potentially be a peacemaker or to join the fight? did they leave to check on their teammate or to get involved in the altercation? It really can become very subjective to judge intent (as D. Stern noted several times in his wonderfully contentious interview with Dan Patrick), which is why you get back to the red-line rule as it is written: don't ever leave the bench.

Still I personally believe that - considering intent is often judged in terms of calling technicals and the like - a rule interpretation which allows for an emotional reaction as long as the player catches himself is one which could be judged fairly. But, one more time: Amare did not do this. He deserved to be suspended, and would deserve to be suspended under any version of a rule which intends to keep fighting to an absolute minimum. I'm sorry that a great series was marred, but there is no need for an asterisk to be attached to the Spurs win, in my mind.

Note: I'm not comparing this to the Baron Davis-Derek Fisher situation, or whether Duncan should have been suspended, or the various Bowen incidents throughout the series. I fully realize that there have been major problems of inconsistency in terms of meting out discipline in the Stu Jackson era, but that's a separate topic, and it also shouldn't be surprising, considering that Stu was the worst GM of all time.

9 Comments:

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only was Phoenix cheated, but so was San Antonio. They can't escape the way they won the series...

 
At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Larry said...

If the player leaves the bench, fine him 1 game pay plus 2 percent of his year pay. If he comes within 10 feet of the altercation then suspend for actions plus above stated pay loss.

 
At 9:52 PM, Blogger nick said...

If, after the fact, the league determines that a player left the bench but did not escalate the altercation, still suspend him but allow for a three game span in which the team can decide to bench him. If the league, after the fact, determines a player left the bench and did escalate the suspension, even accidentally, suspend him for a minimum of two games. This way players are still deterred from leaving the bench at the time (they're getting suspended no matter what), but the league can after the fact make contextual judgments that lessen the punishments for relatively marginal offenders (Diaw).

 
At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't care about the suspensions for leaving the bench - I'm a Suns fan, but can see the value those rules provide. But the perpetrator of an incident that results in any suspensions for leaving the bench should automatically get a ridiculously large suspension - at least as long as anybody else. You want to prevent bench-clearing brawls? Crack down on the junk hard fouls that have no place in the game. People say that Horry's foul was a good hard foul - it wasn't. It's different when somebody is driving the lane and you are trying to prevent a basket; quite another when you want to just stop the clock.

 
At 5:11 PM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Thanks for the thoughtful suggestions, guys. As far as the last note from 'anon', while Horry did not get a "ridiculously large suspension", he did get one that was more than "at least as long as anybody else".

And I thought that part of it was fair - what Horry did warranted 1 game on balance, but needed to be 2 b/c it was more clearly more egregious than what the Suns did.

All of this points to the biggest loophole in the current rules: nothing but honor prevents a team from sending a goon into the game to try to lead a cheap seat in front of the opposition bench which might goad a star or two into the fray.

 
At 1:34 AM, Anonymous Cash said...

"All of this points to the biggest loophole in the current rules: nothing but honor prevents a team from sending a goon into the game to try to lead a cheap seat in front of the opposition bench which might goad a star or two into the fray."

Precisely. That, to me, is the strongest argument against this rule: it produces an absurd conclusion, therefore the rule itself is absurd. Given the NBA's recent predilection for punishing retaliation far and beyond instigation (e.g., Mardy Collins vs. Carmelo Anthony), it is a testament to the honor of the average NBA player that we haven't had more incidents of this ilk.

 
At 8:08 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Again, the point of this particular discussion was "what should the rule be?" moreso than "why is the current rule imperfect?"....

I would also say that one counterargument to that point is that players coming off the bench can be what truly escalates incidents into full-scale brawls even beyond the initial instigations.

 
At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The punishment does not fit the crime, and the fact that the NBA studiously chooses to avoid any discretion in its interpretation is a problem (especially in combination with the first point). I agree the rule should remain very strong, but a fairly simple three part test could assure a certain amount of judgment: 1. In leaving the immediate vicinity of the bench, did the player aggravate or escalate the altercation (if yes, suspend). 2. In leaving the immediate vicinity of the bench, was the player fully cooperative with officials and team staff in withdrawing from the altercation (if no, then suspend -- the Stephen Jackson test). 3. (only after consideration of the first two tests) Did the player leave the immediate vicinity of the bench in direct and immediate response to a provocative act by an opposing player (if yes, then some consideration should be given if the player did not aggravate the altercation, or if the player was fully cooperative). With this test, you give a slight amount of discretion to the immediate emotional response, benefit for total cooperation, and address concern about "goons" trying to provoke reactions that take advantage of punishments that are different for different acts.

 
At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My take on fighting rule change would be a 5 game or more suspension for a player from the bench joining a fight. That way the penalty is stiff enough for the players causing trouble but would be flexible to allow for players to react. Or to allow a team the opporturnity to contain an enthusiastic player. Possibly add to this that if the players actions are deemed detrimental to the situation they can be suspended or fined. I agree that Amare has no defense for what he did under the rule as it is now. Boris on the other hand it could be said that he reacted before the 'altercation' occured.
The biggest problem I have with the suspensions is that as an NBA fan I want to see the best game that can be delivered and that is not happening. I feel that as a customer of this product my interests are not being looked out for. Why should I suffer for this incident. A player who if they had been checked into the game wouldn't of even gotten a technical foul for the very same actions that warrant a minimum one game suspension for a player that just checked out of the game.

The rule needs to be changed for the fan's sake not the players.

 

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