Guess They Really Mean "Stay on the Bench"

Robert Horry, Amare Stoudemire, and Boris Diaw are all suspended for Game 5. It's a total downer for basketball fans everywhere, and it truly seems to reward the Spurs for a ridiculous foul.

But it's not hard to understand, when you consider how we got here.

The league has had grave PR trouble at various times in the past (mostly because there's some racist seeming notion on the part of ticket-buying fans that when basketball players do things that other athletes also do, like fight, or party, they're in dire need of taming). When that trouble gets serious enough, it really hurts the bottom line, and nowhere does it say that leagues like the NBA will never have real financial trouble. With some bad decisions, it can happen. Ask the NHL.

One of the bigger NBA PR problems of recent years was fighting (oddly, a feature in hockey, but whatever) which used to happen quite often. So the league took some serious -- even draconian -- steps to prevent it. One of those anti-mayhem rules was that no NBA player should ever leave the bench during an altercation, and if they do, they are instantly suspended, with, essentially, no questions asked.

There were some growing pains as everyone got used to the rule, including a dreadful year when the Knicks lost a shot at a title because of it. The urge to join the fight, and to protect teammates, can be strong. The rule has snared venerable stars like Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley. But eventually, just about everyone caught on.

And, in part because of that rule, the NBA no longer has a chronic fighting problem. It worked. This rule helps many dozens time a year, when little sparks fly on the court and don't become big fires -- because the few players on the court can't muster the energy to make that kind of trouble alone. And, the three referees on the court can typically keep a lid on two pissed off players. Twelve rushing in to help the two -- that's much tougher.

At the same time, the league is always trying to dispel the notion that everything is subjective, and they hold all the power to arbitrarily decide this or that. Even though that's true in these cases, the league, largely in response to fan criticism, has tried to make clear and enforceable rules where possible. The get-suspended-if-you-leave-the-bench-rule is one of the clearest and most enforceable. You don't want to be suspended? You stay on the bench. Are there any players who don't know that?

Every rule has counterexamples that make it look bad. Speeding laws seem necessary, but does the government really not want police cars, ambulances, and the cars of women in labor to speed? And many of us like leash laws. But how about those frisbee dogs that perform at halftime sometimes -- they're surely breaking the law almost everywhere they perform.

The Suns are the counterexample to the bench-clearing rule. It can suck to be a counterexample.

And yes, sure, you break those rules sometimes, when there's a really compelling argument. But what is the compelling argument here?

I guess the one that has all of us motivated is: because it means so much and because what they did was so harmless. All true, but that's an impossible standard to maintain consistently in the future. Who wants to decide who's harmless and who isn't? Who wants to say which games are really important next time?

Stu Jackson, as reported by the AP, addressed the various "Get Out of Jail Free" cards people like me were trying to give the Suns:

  • The "Amare Stoudemire was checking into the game" theory: "I've not seen a player report in quite that way," Jackson said.

  • The "Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen were on the court in the second quarter when Francisco Elson and James Jones got tangled up" theory: "Both players got up," Jackson said. "There was no altercation, and they ran down to the other end of the court."

Is he wrong on either count?

Similarly, is Horry's punishment too light? You really can't say that it is. It just wasn't that terrible of a foul -- it was actually pretty similar to Baron Davis's elbow to Derek Fisher. (Actually, Davis's may have been worse, because the NBA has a rule that an elbow to the head is an automatic suspension.) Horry's punishment is more or less in step with the way other similar suspensions have been made in the past and most of us tend to agree with that "let them play" approach. I don't see too many people livid that Baron Davis is lacing up his sneakers right now.

Long before this series began, over the course of years, the NBA had, with its actions, sent the message to players that physical play and even the occasional dirty tricks would be more or less taken in stride. But bench-clearing brawls were never acceptable, and would be squashed long before they had a chance to begin. With that in mind, Stu Jackson's announcement was, I suppose, pretty predictable.

The downside of those two consistent trends in disciplining is that it would seem to create a dirty playoff tactic: wait until there are some valuable players on the bench, then send in some bozo to deck the other team's star, just to see if you can tempt good players onto the court.

I'm sure all this hurts like crazy if you're pulling for the Suns. The rules have monkeyed with your dreams. I'm not happy about it either.

But now there's only one thing to do: suck it up and win anyway. It really could happen, and it would make the Suns America's team.

(The one thing that I really have pangs of regret about here? The Suns have not gotten anything useful out of the last few drafts, even giving up picks for cash as a cost-saving move, when reasonably good players were available. Be great to be able to roll the dice with twenty minutes from a promising young whipper-snapper in a game like this.)

It'll be tough, but everything is tough when you are dead set on winning an NBA championship.

Time to step up, Leandro Barbosa, James Jones, Raja Bell, and especially Shawn Marion. No more hesitating on the jumper, Kurt Thomas. Time to wow us all again, Steve Nash. And maybe we'll even have a Jalen Rose or a Marcus Banks sighting.

Let's do this. And if Phoenix does manage the heroics in Game 5? Then in Game 6, Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire return rested and motivated.

UPDATE: ESPN's Chris Sheridan (Insider) finds this ruling insane:

The 15-minute conference call with Jackson was one of the most contentious I have ever been on, with Jackson even acknowledging that if the leave-the-bench rule needs to be revisited, then the league office would be wide open to revisiting it. Jackson said the ruling to suspend Diaw and Stoudemire for a game each (and Robert Horry for two games) was ultimately commissioner David Stern's, but that Stern had accepted his recommendation.

The league office has historically enforced this rule rigidly, though Jackson would not speak to exactly which precedents he considered before imposing the suspensions.

But just because a rule was enforced with a lack of common sense in the past does not mean it must be enforced unreasonably in perpetuity.

I absolutely think we need to start a smart and open-minded discussion about how the rules should change to prevent these kinds of absurd situations. It should change, no doubt, soon. I'm interested in hearing ideas about how.

A TrueHoop reader emailed a great point -- by this logic, if James Jones had noticed that Duncan and Bowen had wandered on the court in the second quarter, he should have immediately decked Francisco Elson. There's your altercation. Mr. Commissioner! Presumably Jones, Duncan, and Bowen would h
ave all been suspended for Game 5 -- a big win for Phoenix.

Makes no sense.

But just ditching a long-term, iron-clad rule in one instance, without any special reason? (This rule almost always seems absurd when it is enforced. That's nothing new. Players who run on the court and throw punches can be suspended for the punches. Players who are suspended just for this rule have always done, essentially, nothing, except break this rule.) I can't understand how this case is different from all the others that have preceded it. If you believe in rules, this is the decision you have to live with.

What happens if there's another brawl in this series, and some San Antonio players leave the bench? Do they get the special "these are important games" waiver too?

The fix to whatever problem is going on now should be permanent and long-term, not a one-off.