On the night Stephen Curry received his MVP trophy, you may remember what happened when the NBA commissioner was introduced. He wasn't booed. In fact, Adam Silver heard some applause in Oracle Arena, a rarity in a sports world in which Roger Goodell is vilified and Bud Selig was treated like Mr. Magoo, both fittingly.
Silver got it right when he banned a racist owner, the ogre Donald Sterling, from a predominantly African-American league. Silver got it right when he cashed in on the superstar-happy marketing agenda of his predecessor, David Stern, and cut new TV deals worth $24 billion. Silver got it right when he avoided pitfalls that will bedevil Goodell, his embattled NFL counterpart, until his retiring/firing day.
But when it comes to a matter of vital importance — protecting the heads and faces of players from wicked blows by opponents, which Goodell at least has addressed via suspensions and substantial fines — the Silver administration has responded with an alarming lack of purpose, consistency and heft this postseason. Tuesday, the league shamed itself in refusing to suspend Houston's notorious big man, Dwight Howard, for a vicious elbow/swinging forearm that deliberately connected with the facial bones of Warriors center Andrew Bogut in Game 4. By failing to take disciplinary action, the league compounded a mistake by veteran referee Joe Crawford, who ruled after a review that Howard had committed merely a flagrant 1 foul when clearly his intentional forceful contact warranted a flagrant 2 foul and an ejection.
When the obvious is ignored, it leads commentators and smarter fans to raise the same integrity doubts that have dogged the league for years. Why wasn't Howard tossed for his left to Bogut's chops early in the third quarter? Oh, maybe because the cagey Crawford — a rascal who has worked this racket for decades and knows the NBA's priorities so well that he doesn't have to ask — realized that ejecting Howard would jeopardize the Rockets' chances of extending the Western Conference finals to five games or longer. The schedule has been a distressing problem for the league, which spent Monday deciding whether to start the Finals two days earlier if the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers went on to sweep their series. With ABC/ESPN and commercial sponsors concerned about a 10-day gap without prime-time TV slots, there were financial and buzz reasons for a Game 5 to happen tonight in Oakland. I'm not saying this was a premeditated scam behind hermetically sealed doors in a Manhattan compound. I'm saying — wink, wink — that a longtime referee grasps, subconsciously or otherwise, the huge repercussions of a flagrant-two whistled on a major impact player whose team was trailing 3-0 in the series at the time.
Stretching to Gumby proportions, league president of basketball operations Rod Thorn saw what he wanted to see in absolving Howard. In a statement, Thorn said Howard "was trying to extricate himself from Bogut and recklessly hit him in the face with an open hand." Is it me, or does Thorn sound like Howard's defense attorney? In truth, Howard was retaliating angrily as Bogut tussled with him under the basket, doing nothing that warranted a high, dangerous swing of a powerful arm from a player known for such tactics.
"The contact was unnecessary but was not deemed excessive by the officials working the game with the aid of the replay center," Thorn said. "And we don't see a reason to modify that call."
Why would they? This way, the onus is on Crawford for making the weaker call while the league merrily scoots away, getting the result it wanted. In this case, much more was at stake for Howard. A flagrant 2 would have pushed him over the limit for accrued flagrant foul points this postseason, requiring him to be automatically suspended for Game 5. The league had a chance to correct Crawford and upgrade the goonery to a flagrant 2, but it instead offered up a Thorny explanation. Why? Because Howard in uniform tonight is better for league business, better for ESPN, better for ratings. If Howard weren't playing, and a groggy-free Curry went off early and led the Warriors to a romp and the conference title, the ratings would drop at halftime, and the league and network are without basketball programming for a week. This way, ESPN has a fighting chance for a big number tonight and — who knows? — perhaps a Game 6 on Friday night.
"I did not take [that] into consideration," Thorn said.
My conspiratorial antenna disagrees.
This line of thinking is commonly known as the Phil Jackson Gotcha Theory. It was introduced by Jackson when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls in the Jordan era and noticed, not inappropriately, that games weren't always officiated uniformly. He blurted out that Stern and NBC, the league's TV partner at the time, must have been pleased the series was extended. For that, he was slapped with a heavy fine, but the seed was planted forevermore. And his rationale makes sense now when you look at the NBA rulebook and see this definition for a flagrant 2 and how it certainly should have applied to Howard:
1. The severity of the contact;
2. Whether or not the player was making a legitimate basketball play (e.g., whether a player is making a legitimate effort to block a shot; note, however, that a foul committed during a block attempt can still be considered flagrant if other criteria are present such as recklessness and hard contact to the head);
3. Whether, on a foul committed with a player's arm or hand, the fouling player wound up and/or followed through after making contact;
4. The potential for injury resulting from contact (e.g., a blow to the head and a foul committed while a player is in a vulnerable position).
Further, Howard's misdeed was more glaring than that of Atlanta's Al Horford, who received a flagrant 2 and was ejected from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals for elbowing Cleveland's reckless superpest, Matthew Dellavedova. The referee, Ken Mauer, said he decided on a flagrant 2 because Horford "made contact above to the shoulders, to the shoulder and head area, of Dellavedova."
Um, didn't Howard make contact to the head area?
"I mean, he elbowed him in the head, so I don't really know what the rule is," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, miffed hours before the ruling. "Seriously, it just seems like every case is a little different. There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer."
So, does Howard deserve a suspension?
"I'm not answering that," said Kerr, which was his way of saying yes.
He made his remarks at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston before the Warriors returned to the Bay Area. They got out of town safely after a series of deadly flash floods all but paralyzed the area. It was surreal leaving Toyota Center in the wee hours with hundreds of people still in the arena seats, unable to make it home through torrential downpours that flooded two bayous and several rivers. It was more surreal to know a familiar face was sitting with them and signing autographs at 2:15 a.m.
"I can't go nowhere, so I'm with the fans," said Howard, who lives in the distant suburbs and waited out the storm with his son until a road was reopened. "I hope everybody's safe right now and everybody stays off the streets."
His thoughts were in the right place in a life-and-death context. Too bad he wasn't nearly as genuine earlier on the podium, when he said of the Bogut play, "Well, you know, I don't mean to do anything intentional, to hurt anybody on the floor. My reaction was just to get away from him, and I was glad I didn't hit him."
He should have been docked right there, too, for lying.
But the NBA makes up rules as it goes, not a good look for Silver. He can take landmark social stands and build a financial colossus, but as seen with Tom Brady and Deflategate, a league must enforce its sacred rules. Howard elbowed a hole through the rulebook and a forearm through the flagrant-foul point ledger.
All you need to know is that Stu Jackson, who formerly served as the NBA’s top cop in these matters, was compelled to tweet that he was “baffled” by the league’s decision. “Hard contact to face, reckless, released arm and flailed for free head shot and history,” he wrote.
Dwight Howard will play tonight, regardless.