The NBA could learn from NASCAR   

Updated: May 18, 2007, 12:39 PM ET

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You know, NASCAR's got this penalty thing down. If you want to hurt someone, do it where it counts -- the scoreboard.

That's what happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he failed his pre-race inspection at Darlington last weekend. Earnhardt's rear end was illegally modified, and he was docked 100 points in the Nextel Cup standings. Bet he won't let that happen again.

Tim Duncan and Steve Nash

AP Photo/Jason Babyak

Duncan and the Spurs now have the upper hand, thanks to an assist from the commish.

After the shorthanded Suns predictably petered out down the stretch against the Spurs Wednesday night, perhaps the NBA should consider something similar?

We all know the league made a bad decision by suspending Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for Game 5. Contrary to the spin David Stern's trying to sell, Robert Horry and the commissioner's office did swing the series in the Spurs' favor. Stoudemire and Diaw got as close to fighting as anyone reading this, but they were suspended because the "immediate vicinity" rule makes no exceptions.

It's not a bad rule. It just needs some tweaking.

The NBA should instead parcel out punishment on the scoreboard. If a player strays from the bench but doesn't cause an incident to escalate, dock his team a few points in their next game. Start them in the hole.

Sounds a little Rock 'N Jock-ish, right? Hear me out, though.

For transgressions as minor as Diaw's and Stoudemire's, two points apiece would have sufficed -- not enough to cripple a team, but enough to give some teeth to a needed rule. Fans would forget about the penalty a couple minutes into the game, but they'd remember it at the end. The league could make its point without affecting its product.

There'd be other benefits, too. For one, this would better encourage scrubs to follow the league's wishes. Think about it -- there was nothing to stop Marcus Banks from roundhouse-kicking somebody Monday night. In fact, had Marcus Banks come out swinging a chair, who would really have cared? Suspending Banks wouldn't have had an impact on the series.

But the best part about this plan? Its effectiveness would play on the same rationale that sends guys flying off the bench in the first place.

Any player who leaves the bench to fight does so for the same reason: to protect a teammate. He's looking out for his team, and that mentality should be commended. That mentality also would make a player think twice about making his team start a game below zero. Sure, suspensions hurt entire teams -- but they're levied against a single player. The score is the only thing that belongs to everyone, from the stars that score the points to the benchwarmers that wave the towels..

Is this a bit unconventional? Sure. But it's not like adding a 10-point circle on the court. If teams can be asked to play 5-on-3 for a few minutes in hockey, what's wrong with a system like this?

Suspending a player for leaving the bench and nothing more is like giving someone a ticket for going 57 in a 55-mph zone. That's far too harsh of a minimum sentence, especially considering that athletes in team sports are conditioned to defend their brethren. Bringing the hammer down on a natural but harmless response is ridiculous.

The league does need a rule to keep players near their seats, though. As long as people act like any fight in the NBA is the Watts riots redux, it's good business for the league to give players pause before making things worse.

Many seem to have forgotten the fights that motivated the mandate. Remember Greg Anthony coming off the bench -- and the injured list -- in that atrocious Knicks-Suns battle royale in '93? Or the brouhaha in '94 that started after Knicks guard Derek Harper tackled Bulls guard Jo Jo English at Chicago Stadium? David Stern surely remembers the latter, since he was in the stands for that one.

Still, the league's gone too far in trying to avert disaster.

This is the second time the "immediate vicinity" rule has brought undue harm to a team hit with a cheap shot in the playoffs. The other time was in 1997, when New York's Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and John Starks were suspended for leaving the bench after Miami Heat forward P.J. Brown flipped Knicks guard Charlie Ward upside down in the Eastern semis. (Ward, a principal in the fight, also was forced to sit a game.)

Ewing never got close to the action. No Knick who left the bench threw a punch. Yet all of them were suspended.

In fact, so many players were suspended that the Knicks' suspensions had to be staggered over the series' final two games. The Heat, who had been down 3-1 in the series, went on to win Game 5 and were able to beat the decimated Knicks in Games 6 and 7.

There's no way the smallest penalty for a potentially harmless offense should be something as serious as a suspension.

But what's a bucket or two? Not that much, but still a whole lot.

Sounds like the perfect penalty.

Bomani Jones is a columnist for Page 2. You can reach him here.



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