Blake Griffin has been the victim of countless hard fouls this season, including two category two Flagrant Fouls in the final month of the season. And as the playoffs begin this weekend, things could really get intense for the Clippers and their All-Star forward.
This is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it in this space over a year ago. It is a complex issue and defies easy answers. It's not nearly as simple as Charles Barkley would have us believe.
Sir Charles' position that the Clippers need a Rick Mahorn to protect Griffin by handing out some punishment of his own is dead wrong. Mahorn is a product of another era, and was a pretty unappealing part of that era to boot. He was part of a trend that was ruining basketball. A vote for a goon squad in Clippers red-white-and-blue is a vote for ugly and unappealing basketball. I can't vote for that.
I understand that waiting for a better solution, waiting for the league to fix this problem, is going to be a long wait. So it may seem as if the only short term option is to lay some guys out. But that doesn't solve the problem by any means -- it just escalates it. I like to quote Broadway musicals whenever possible, and in the words of Tevye, the Old Testament Law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the world blind and toothless.
It's important to take a step back and try to decipher what the league's goals are in this situation. The first goal is that no one should get hurt. There's little question that the trend is disquieting as far as this goal is concerned -- just ask James Harden. Griffin was laid out twice in less than four weeks, and Barkley isn't the only one openly calling for his teammates to do something. This is not code people. Do something means hurt someone. The chorus of people calling for the Clippers to protect Griffin has the very real possibility of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it has the disturbing qualities of playground name calling. "If you don't fight then you're chicken." "I'm not chicken, I'll show you." With all the talk going on would it have been a surprise had someone on the Clippers actually injured Jason Smith when he came to STAPLES Center a couple days after the Lopez foul and a month after Smith himself had body checked Griffin? Happily, aside from some low level chippiness, the Clippers-Hornets game passed without incident (though Hornets coach Monty Williams did bizarrely decide to call Blake Griffin out for no apparent reason in his post-game comments).
The question of intent is irrelevant. If you do something you know is dangerous and someone gets hurt, it doesn't matter whether your intent was to injure. Besides, how do you determine intent? Moving from Tevye to Yoda, "Do or do not. There is no try."
If the goal is that players should not get hurt, then my biggest problem with what is happening right now is that the NBA has failed at disincenting teams from pulling this stuff. For some reason, Blake has been turned into a WWE villain, and playing in front of their home crowds, players are heroes for taking on the villain. It may make good spectacle, but it's clearly not in the long term interests of the league, and they need to recognize that.
Taking three recent Blake-centered incidents, my biggest issue is not with the foul itself, but with the peripheral events.
Against Denver when Timofey Mozgov fouled Griffin hard, we learned later in a giddy Nuggets locker room that it was all premeditated. Andre Miller told Mozgov to put Griffin on his ass, he did it, and the Nuggets celebrated their strategic success. In New Orleans, after Smith body checked Griffin in the open court, he openly egged on the crowd (again as if we were at Wrestlemania) and high-fived fans as he left the arena. In Phoenix, the clueless officiating crew handed out a technical foul for an inevitable and frankly pretty calm reaction from Mo Williams, thus removing any direct penalty from Lopez' ridiculous foul. And what is the worst part of these three incidents? The fact that they worked, as the Clippers lost all three games. This is becoming the book on beating the Clippers. Hit them, bloody their nose, and you can beat them.
This cannot possibly be a message the NBA wants to send, but that's what is happening.
We need to realize something here -- just because a strategy might help you win games, doesn't make it right. David Stern tends toward the Machiavellian to be certain, but the ends cannot justify the means in what is supposed to be a competitive sport. You could almost certainly win games by sending rabid fans wielding tire irons to Gillooly the knees of your opposition's stars, and you could probably find fans stupid enough to accept the consequences of those actions. It doesn't make it right. And on an NBA bench that goes 13 deep, there are some players that aren't that far removed from a Gillooly. If the NBA allows these tactics to work, the tactics will become more frequent and more extreme. We're currently witnessing that escalation.
One issue is that the punishments currently available to the league are by and large ex post facto -- fines and suspensions may hurt the offender and the team in the long term, but they don't have any impact on the game in which the foul occurs. In the case of a 13th man committing the foul, the most extreme and vicious Flagrant Foul category 2 is no different than a clear path foul -- two free throws and the ball out of bounds. And that's clearly disproportionate. In the case of Metta World Peace's elbow to James Harden's head, two free throw's and MWP's ejection was certainly not as costly for the Lakers as losing Harden was for the Thunder. It's hard to imagine that the Lakers would have mounted the comeback they did if Harden had been available down the stretch.
In the case of Lopez, the league didn't even issue a suspension after his foul on Griffin. The net effect of the calls associated with that play was essentially no different than if Lopez had been whistled for a common non-shooting foul. Griffin, a 52 percent foul shooter, was given two free throws, while Mo Williams' inevitable technical foul resulted in one free throw for a good foul shooter for the Suns. Predictably, each team made a free throw and the Clippers inbounded the ball with the margin unchanged. Nor was Lopez' ejection a loss, as starting center Marcin Gortat was literally already at the scorer's table waiting to enter the game when the foul occurred.
Griffin is a hard foul magnet and is frankly a unique case in the league right now. He is a great finisher around the rim, and tends to put nearby opponents on his posters. Bearing in mind that he's a 52 percent foul shooter, making him earn two points at the line rather than getting an automatic two only makes good basketball sense. But he's strong, and you have to make sure that he's not going to wind up with three points on an and-one, so you have to foul him hard. It follows that hard, intentional fouls would occasionally cross the line into dangerous territory, particularly when we know for a fact that the strategy of at least one team is to "put Griffin on his behind".
The league has a problem on its hands, and it's only going to get worse during the playoffs. At least in the playoffs, subsequent punishments issued by the league do have the potential to benefit the team of the victim, assuming the series is not yet concluded. One way or the other, the league has to increase the disincentives associated with Flagrant Fouls. Two free throws and the ball, the same penalty as on a clear path foul, is clearly not enough -- not when the player fouled is a bad free throw shooter and the player being ejected could conceivably be the 13th man put into the game specifically to commit a hard foul. One obvious option would be to allow the team's best foul shooter to shoot free throws as with technical fouls. Another would be to disqualify from the game not just the player who commits the flagrant foul, but also another player of the fouled team's choice. That would be a true disincentive.
Griffin of course can take the target off his back himself, or at least reduce it in size, by becoming a better free throw shooter. When it gets to the point where he's more likely than not to get two points at the line, then many players will probably decide that the best way to stay off his posters is to clear a path. But until he improves, it's up to the league to increase the disincentives associated with this ever-increasing tactic.