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Ibaka won't be suspended and I am confused

Serge Ibaka received a $25,000 fine but no suspension for Sunday's cheap shot on Blake Griffin Sunday, but how the NBA justifies the decision in light of other suspensions issued this season is beyond me.

Stephen Dunn

According to a tweet from Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder will not be suspended for his below the belt punch on Blake Griffin in Sunday's Clippers-Thunder game. According to Mannix, Ibaka will receive a fine, but no suspension

About an hour after Mannix's tweet, he was proven correct when the NBA released this statement:

Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder has been fined $25,000 for striking Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers in the groin area, it was announced today by Stu Jackson, NBA Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations. The incident, which was called a Flagrant Foul 1 on the floor and upgraded to a Flagrant Foul 2 upon league office review, occurred with 1:52 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Thunder's 108-104 win over the Clippers on Sunday, March 3 at Staples Center.

So there you have it. A fine, no suspension, and the foul was upgraded to a flagrant 2. Which means of course that the NBA is admitting that the officiating crew (headed by our friend Danny Crawford) got it wrong Sunday, and that Ibaka should NOT have been around to make a three point play of block a shot in the final 90 seconds. But that's a different story. The real story here is that Ibaka will not be suspended and will play tonight against the Lakers.

And I'm at something of a loss to explain it.

It's not news that the NBA is maddeningly inconsistent in their application of any number of rules. Three seconds in the key is sometimes whistled after two and a half seconds but usually ignored until five or six. A hop move from LeBron James is never a travel but almost always a travel on other players. The clear path rule seems to be applied by randomly selected people off the street wearing blindfolds. Technical fouls are issued entirely based on the circadian rhythms of the referee involved. And don't get me started on charge/block calls.

Flagrant fouls are among the most inconsistently enforced. On Sunday Ibaka was given a flagrant 1 and remained in the game, while Monday night J.J. Barea was issued a flagrant 2 and ejected for a mild hip check on Ray Allen that many thought was a common foul, not a flagrant at all. The argument that referees make mistakes in the heat of the moment is reasonable up to a point. It would be best if every NBA crew were applying the same set of guidelines, but it's reasonable to conjecture that the crew in L.A. simply had a different interpretation than the one in Minneapolis. You'd like to think that stopping play to review the video would result in the right call in most cases -- though unfortunately it doesn't always work that way. And indeed Barea's flagrant 2 was downgraded to a flagrant 1 upon review while Ibaka's was upgraded. That's the NBA admitting that the respective crews got their calls wrong. Of course there's the old barn door/cow problem -- changing the call a day or two later didn't help the Wolves who had to play most of the game without a key player or the Clippers who watched as Ibaka had a significant impact on 90 seconds of basketball he should not have played.

But even if you accept some amount of inconsistency among officiating crews making decisions in real time (or near real time), how is it possible that the league office could look at Ibaka's action and conclude that it did not warrant a suspension?

The rule book itself is useless here as we discussed Sunday. "Unnecessary" and "excessive" are just words, and not particularly helpful ones at informing these decisions. So the league office we're told has additional guidelines they apply. Was the play in question a basketball play, was there intent in the action, was the intent to injure, was it an open or closed fist, etc. In addition, when Metta World Peace was suspended last season for his elbow to James Harden, David Stern said that Metta's troubled history played into the length of the suspension.

Part of the difficulty of consistently enforcing the flagrant rules and subsequent punishment is that there are so many factors involved in the decision. There are subtle differences between every flagrant foul. Will Bynum was suspended one game for punching Tyler Hansbrough in the gut. Dwyane Wade was suspended one game for kicking Ramon Sessions in the groin. Were these offenses more or less severe than Ibaka's? Reasonable people might disagree (I would say that Ibaka's was worse than either because of intent in comparing it to Wade's and because of severity in the case of Bynum's). It can be difficult to apply precedent because the incidents are so different.

Except when they're not different at all.

In December, DeMarcus Cousins was suspended one game for hitting O.J. Mayo in the groin. There is no way anyone in the world could possibly look at the two incidents side by side and conclude that Cousins' low blow on Mayo was worse than Ibaka's cheap shot on Griffin. In fact, the officiating crew didn't even notice Cousins hitting Mayo at the time it happened and no foul was called. But if you really want some proof, show each of the replays to a room full of men and just let the decibel level of the reactions determine which was more severe. There's no comparison.

So of course the NBA took their sweet time, reviewed each incident for over 40 hours, and drew the conclusion that Cousins should be suspended one game while Ibaka received the comparative slap on the wrist of a $25,000 fine.

I've racked my brain for some justification, any justification, for the difference in these two decisions. Since I'm admittedly very close to the situation and not entirely impartial, I also asked the rest of the NBA bloggers at SB Nation for what they thought might be a possible justification. We didn't get very far.

Here are some potential reasons, ludicrous though they may be:

  • Reputation. As Stern described in the MWP case, sometimes prior incidents and reputation are taken into account. Cousins has had several incidents in his brief career so maybe that impacted the NBA's decision. But on closer inspection, Cousins issues -- arguing with his coach, confronting Spurs announcer Sean Elliot after a game -- haven't really been about on court shenanigans. Meanwhile, Ibaka had already been issued two flagrant fouls this season (one of them coming against the Clippers in November), and with this one being upgraded to a flagrant 2, he is now third in the NBA (behind MWP and Dwight Howard) in flagrant points. In an email to JA Sherman of Welcome to Loud City after that November game I asked if Ibaka was a dirty player based on what I'd witnessed -- if Ibaka's reputation is indeed what spared him a suspension, it certainly should not have.
  • Lack of intent. Is it possible the league office accepted Ibaka's explanation that it was all an accident? Well, when was the last time a player said "Yes I hit him, I hit him on purpose, and I was trying to hurt him"? In the replay Ibaka clearly winds up and hits Griffin in the groin. His explanation is laughable if you've seen the video.
  • His fist wasn't closed. Obviously this one doesn't seem to square with the Cousins incident, since there's no evidence that Cousins' fist was closed either. More to the point, I'm not sure how a karate chop to the groin is less deserving of punishment that a punch.
  • Griffin's reputation as a flopper influenced the decision. Please, please, please tell me that this had no bearing in the decision. That it would even be suggested is disturbing enough. Kendrick Perkins' asinine comments after the game attempted to imply that Griffin somehow "had it coming" or perhaps that it was all a big flop illusion and Griffin wasn't hit at all. Of course, you can watch the replay and stop it before Griffin reacts and decide for yourself if this foul had to be "sold" in any way. It did not.
  • Griffin had Ibaka's jersey. Maybe the NBA is viewing this as a more reasonable reaction to rough play under that basket than Cousins' more surreptitious low blow. I find this thinking to be a troubling "blame the victim" logic. Does Griffin push and shove under the basket? Sure. Does it justify this sort of retaliatory low blow? Absolutely not.
  • The NBA wants the Thunder to beat the Lakers tonight. I'm not a conspiracy theorist and this one doesn't make any sense at any rate. The NBA has plenty of incentive to want the Lakers to make the playoffs, as their presence would certainly increase postseason television ratings. If the NBA were going to influence this decision based on their interests the Ibaka would certainly have been suspended.

Those are all the reasons I can think of, and frankly, they are all weak. The bottom line is that the league is unapologetically inconsistent in their decision making on many things, and flagrant fouls are exhibit A.