As much as I'd love to condemn the NBA higher-ups for ruining the Spurs-Suns series, I can't jeopardize the chances of them fixing the 2007 lottery for my beloved Celtics. We desperately need one of the top two picks or I'm going to develop a serious drinking problem. Those are the stakes. Now, you could argue that a serious drinking problem would inject some much-needed life into my column, and you might even be right. But I'd rather avoid this scenario.
So here's my defense on the NBA's behalf ...
You can't blame them for the Stoudemire-Diaw suspensions because they correctly interpreted a stupid, idiotic, foolish, moronic, brainless, unintelligent, foolhardy, imprudent, thoughtless, obtuse and thickheaded rule. Can you blame them for having that rule in the first place? Yes. But you can't blame them for the actual interpretation -- after all, Stoudemire and Diaw did leave their bench during an altercation, just like Tom Brady's right arm was still coming down as Charles Woodson popped him in the Tuck Rule Game. Everyone knows about the leaving-the-bench rule. It's been around for more than a decade. It's the reason assistant coaches spin around during potential fights and hold their arms out like bouncers at a nightclub. It's the reason a really good Knicks team got bounced from the '97 playoffs (robbing everyone of a much-anticipated Bulls-Knicks Eastern Conference finals). It's also the reason why we haven't had a bench-clearing brawl since the rule was invented.
Here's the problem with that stupid, idiotic, foolish, moronic, brainless, unintelligent, foolhardy, imprudent, thoughtless, obtuse and thickheaded rule: It's currently designed as a black-or-white law that leaves no room for interpretation. As Barkley pointed out on TNT, Stoudemire and Diaw stopped after a few steps and never escalated the situation. In a way, it played out as poorly as the tuck rule did. In that playoff game against the Raiders, Brady pumped the football, brought it back down, got popped by Woodson and coughed up the ball. It should have been a fumble, but because of the stupid, idiotic, foolish, moronic, brainless, unwise unintelligent, foolhardy, imprudent, thoughtless, obtuse and thickheaded way that the tuck rule was designed, the play was interpreted correctly, the Patriots kept the ball and ended up winning in overtime.
The bothersome thing is that both rules should have been changed. After the Pats-Raiders game, the NFL should have softened that rule to leave some degree of interpretation depending on the game and the situation. Same with the NBA after the Knicks-Heat debacle in '97. Why didn't that happen? Because both leagues were so freaking stubborn and took so much heat for those two games, they obstinately kept the exact language of those rules in place. After all, a change of the rules would have been an admission that they failed. And as the old saying goes, those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
Sadly, regretfully, unfortunately, the Stoudemire-Diaw suspensions tainted a successful playoffs and inspired a record-setting number of fans to exhale in disgust, "That's it, I'm finally done with the NBA."
But there's a larger issue that everyone seems to be missing, an issue that keeps popping up during these playoffs in various forms and might be fixable: Namely, that the NBA turned the competitive sport of basketball into something else. It's still basketball, only it's a bastardized version of it. A certain amount of instinct and competitiveness has been compromised. Why? Because of the league's misguided attempt to create a fairy-tale universe in which world-class athletes can play basketball without ever raising their voices, trash-talking, bumping bodies, exulting after a great play or rubbing each other the wrong way.
(You know what? Screw it, I can't defend the NBA. I just can't. If everything you're about to read ends up costing the Celtics a top-two pick, I apologize. Now hold on to your seats ... the pilot just turned off the "Don't hold back" sign.)
Three incidents/story lines from this year's playoffs inadvertently illustrated the deeper dilemma here:
1. Let's say you're one of the best seven players on the Phoenix Suns. You love Nash -- he's your emotional leader, your meal ticket to the Finals, the ideal teammate and someone who makes you happy to play basketball every day for a living. He's killing himself to win a championship. His nose was split open in Game 1. His back bothers him to the point that he has to lie down on the sidelines during breaks. He's battling a real cheap-shot artist (Bruce Bowen) who's trying to shove and trip him on every play. But he keeps coming and coming, and eventually everyone follows suit. Just as things were falling apart in Game 4 and you were staring at the end of your season, he willed you back into the game and saved the day.
Suddenly, he gets body-checked into a press table for no real reason on an especially cheap play. You're standing 20 feet away. Instinctively, you run a few steps toward the guy who did it -- after all, your meal ticket is lying on the court in a crumpled heap -- before remembering that you can't leave your bench. So you go back and watch everything else unfold from there. Twenty-four hours later, you get suspended for Game 5 because your instincts as a teammate kicked in for 1.7 seconds.
Think about how dumb this is. What kind of league penalizes someone for reacting like a good teammate after his franchise player just got decked? Imagine you're playing pickup at a park, you're leading a game 10-3, your buddy is driving for the winning layup, and some stranger clotheslines your buddy from behind and knocks him into the metal pole. Do you react? Do you take a couple of steps toward him? I bet you do. For the NBA to pretend it can create a fairy-tale league in which these reactions can be removed from somebody's DNA -- almost like a chemical castration -- I mean, how stupid is that?
2. One of the running debates of these playoffs: Is Bruce Bowen a cheap player? I love the fact that anyone's actually debating this -- if your answer is "no" or your answer is "I'm not sure," then you've obviously never played basketball in your life. Bruce Bowen is a cheap player. There's no debate. He's not some clumsy power forward who can't stay out of his own way (like Mark Madsen), or even some uncoordinated center who can't remember to keep his elbows near his body (like Shawn Bradley). He's a world-class athlete who has complete control over every inch of his body at all times.
As anyone who's ever played basketball knows, with the exception of clumsy people who probably shouldn't be playing in the first place, there are no accidents on a basketball court. Your feet just don't coincidentally land under someone else's feet as he's shooting a jump shot, and you don't just coincidentally kick someone in the calf as he's going up for a layup or dunk. These things don't just happen. They don't. The only room for error happens when someone's trying to block a fast-break layup or dunk, takes a roundhouse swipe and inadvertently ends up hitting his opponent's head instead of the ball (like we saw with Matt Barnes when he clocked Matt Harpring Tuesday night). When Jason Richardson nails Memo Okur at the end of Game 4 because he's pissed that Okur was driving at the tail end of a guaranteed win, or Baron Davis elbows Derek Fisher in the same game because he's ticked that the Warriors blew a winnable game ... those aren't accidents.
Anyway, for a world-class athlete with exceptional coordination, Bruce Bowen sure seems to have a lot of "accidents." They happen because of his style -- best described as "organized, physical chaos" -- and because he deliberately bends the rules for a competitive advantage. When he was breaking into the league, Bowen played for the Celtics from 1997-99, back when I was living in Boston and attending nearly every game. He was just as good defensively back then -- quicker, even -- but couldn't shoot to save his life (41 percent his first season, 28 percent his second season), and more importantly, he was a soft player. Opponents pushed him around, refs didn't give him any respect, even his own coach (Rick Pitino) screamed at him constantly. Since Bowen seemed like such a nice guy, and he tried so freaking hard, everyone who attended those games found themselves feeling sorry for him. As gifted as he was defensively, I never imagined him making it because of his dreadful shooting and beaten-down, little-kid-getting-picked-on-in-class demeanor. He just needed one person to believe in him ... and Rick Pitino wasn't it.
When he finally made it in San Antonio a few years later, I wasn't shocked because there's always a place in the NBA for someone with a specific skill (whether it's long-range shooting, rebounding, defense or whatever), but I was shocked by his much-improved 3-point shooting (44 percent in 2003?????) and newfound intensity. Watching him hound offensive players was like watching Beecher torment Schillinger after he finally snapped in "Oz." Where did this come from??? Suddenly, Bowen was willing to bend the rules, trip guys as they landed after jump shots, bump them when they weren't looking and basically do anything to get into their heads, all while doing the whole "Wait, I'm in trouble??? What????" routine and pretending to be shocked anytime anyone threatened to kick his ass. Which happens every couple of months. There's no doubt in my mind -- absolutely none -- that at some point between Boston and San Antonio, Bruce Bowen decided to do whatever it took to remain in the NBA. Even if it meant becoming a dirty player.
Now here's where the NBA failed: For a league that professes to be concerned about dirty play and any situation that could lead to a brawl, the league has curiously looked the other way with the single dirtiest player in the league. If he pulled this crap on a pickup court, or even in college intramurals, somebody would have punched Bowen in the face and broken his jaw. In the NBA? He gets to keep doing his thing and putting other players in danger. In the Phoenix series alone, he tripped Stoudemire from behind on a dunk in Game 2, kneed Nash in the groin in Game 3 and tried to knock Nash off balance in Game 4 as they were running back upcourt (causing a frustrated Nash to elbow him in the chops). The league penalizes two Phoenix stars for instinctively running toward an injured teammate, but they don't penalize a perpetually dirty player who's eventually going to trigger an ugly brawl before the end of his career?
How the hell does that make sense?
In the current NBA, you can't commit a hard foul, you can't trash-talk another player, you can't pull your shirt up after a roof-raising dunk, you can't protect a teammate who just got knocked into a press table. We have these rules -- I'm guessing -- because any of those actions can lead to an ugly fight. Ever since the Bad Boys Pistons and Riley's Knicks tried to turn the NBA into the WWF in the late '80s and early '90s, nearly every rule change was created to prevent ugly incidents, even if some of those rule changes compromised the competitiveness of the league in the process. Well, if that's the case, how could the league allow Bruce Bowen to keep running amok with no repercussions? Can you think of a better candidate to trigger an ugly fight some day than Bruce Bowen? Why do they allow him to keep doing what he's doing? Seriously, does the NBA have a clue?
(On second thought, don't answer that.)
3. The single most disgusting NBA development of the past few years? The flopping. Slowly, regretfully, inexplicably, the sport is morphing into soccer -- as exemplified by Kirilenko's swan dive near the end of Tuesday's Jazz-Warriors game that fouled out Matt Barnes, or Kirk Hinrich's perfectly designed flopparoo to draw Chauncey Billups' fourth foul in Detroit Tuesday. I blame the influx of European players for this trend because flopping has always been an acceptable part of soccer; they grew up watching that crap and understood that it could work in basketball as well, especially if you have a group of largely incompetent referees calling the action. So it started a few years ago, it's gotten worse and worse, and now, it's affecting the overall competitiveness of these games.
Here's the problem: Because we don't have any anti-flopping rules, it behooves defenders to fall backward every time a low-post player lowers his shoulder, and it behooves them to slide under airborne players and plant their feet for a charge (even if they might end up breaking the guy's neck in the process). Not to keep bringing up the pickup basketball analogy, but geez ... can you imagine if somebody pulled this crap during a game among friends? The prevailing reactions would be, "What the hell are you doing?" and "If you do that again, I'm gonna sock you." But because the NBA refuses to do anything about the flopping, it's evolved into a savvy defensive maneuver. For instance, if you're Barnes and you're giving up 50 pounds to Boozer on the low post, there's only two ways you're stopping him: Go for a strip if he puts the ball on the ground, or jump backward if he's dumb enough to lower his shoulder as he's turning around. Those are your two options.
Is that basketball? Hell, no! In fact, when I was a little kid -- and I swear to God, this happened -- a guard named Mike Newlin flopped to draw a charge from the great Dave Cowens, a fiery Hall of Famer who played with a remarkable level of passion and fury, to the degree that he burned himself out after 7-8 years. Completely and utterly outraged that Newlin committed such a phony act of sportsmanship, Cowens berated the ref who made the call, yelled at him some more, then started running back on defense when he noticed Newlin dribbling up the court. Now, our seats were at midcourt, so this happened right in front of us and nearly caused me to pee my pants -- as Cowens was running, he snapped and suddenly charged Newlin like a free safety, bodychecked him at full speed (much, MUCH harder than Horry's foul on Nash) and sent poor Newlin careening into the press table at about 35 mph. Then he turned to the same ref and screamed ...
"NOW THAT'S A F------- FOUL!"
Did Cowens get kicked out of the game? Of course. But there's a moral to the story. Once upon a time, these guys had a code of honor. They played hard, respected the game, defended their teammates, and if anyone stepped out of line, there was always someone that would take care of them -- whether it was another player, a referee, a coach or whatever. When fights or altercations happened, they were considered natural side effects of a physical sport. When two players talked smack, it was considered a good thing, a sign that the game was heating up, that we were potentially headed for a more competitive place.
In fact, during the golden era of the NBA (1984-1993), three of the most inspired/famous/memorable moments, in retrospect, were McHale's clothesline of Rambis in the '84 Finals, MJ standing over Ewing after a hard foul and swearing at him in the '92 playoffs, and Parish getting fed up with Bill Laimbeer's crap, taking justice into his own hands and clocking him in Game 5 of the '87 playoffs. Why do those moments still resonate? Because there was a level of competitiveness back then that doesn't exist anymore -- it's been beaten out of these guys, partly because the league has been terrified of another Kermit Washington moment for 30 years, partly because the "SportsCenter" era (where we show the same highlight six million times and pretend to be appalled) made the decision-makers too skittish (to the degree that Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games for slapping another player).
Personally, I don't believe Kermit's punch could happen again -- it was the perfect storm of an NBA brawl, a powerful 6-foot-9 guy whirling around during a fight, then delivering a perfect straight right (seriously, that was like the right that Tommy Hearns threw to drop Roberto Duran) to the face of a peacemaker (Rudy Tomjanovich) who was running toward him at full speed and forgot to protect himself. Kermit's punch was a complete fluke. Repeat: a complete fluke. And yet, every decision made in the past 30 years keeps coming back to that one punch; it's the equivalent of a NASCAR driver dying after an accident that started because of one driver bumping another jumper from behind, followed by NASCAR banning bumping and completely removing that element from the sport.
In other words, it would be a complete overreaction. You know, kind of like the Stoudemire/Diaw suspension.
So don't blame the NBA higher-ups for the way they interpreted that stupid, idiotic, foolish, moronic, brainless, unintelligent, foolhardy, imprudent, thoughtless, obtuse and thickheaded rule. Blame them for having the rule itself. Blame them for allowing the league to morph into something that doesn't quite resemble basketball anymore. Blame them for a league in which basketball players aren't totally allowed to think and act like basketball players and teammates aren't totally allowed to think and act like teammates. Blame them for an ongoing double standard in which the Bruce Bowens of the league can willfully endanger other players, but a roundhouse swipe on an attempted block can get someone ejected if they miss by a scant 10 inches while moving at full speed. Blame them for dubious officiating that's compromised the playoffs to the degree that an increasing number of fans are wondering where the WWE ends and the NBA begins.
And speaking of blame ... if you want to skip tonight's Game 5 between the Suns and Spurs, I can't blame you.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.