- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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David Stern has swung back with an even harsher-than-expected rash of suspensions, fines and warnings in response to Saturday night's fight at Madison Square Garden.
Harsh for the players, at least.
Our response is to ask -- and answer -- all the big questions about what factored into the commissioner's various rulings and what happens next for many of the key brawl participants.
Why did Carmelo Anthony get the stiffest suspension?
Answer: The two big distinctions in the league's view are that Anthony threw the only punch that landed and that his punch took the fracas to another level when it seemed to be simmering down.
Analysis: I still say 15 games is too many, especially when compared to Isiah Thomas' stunning zero games. Seven to 10 games -- the estimates widely in circulation Sunday night -- seemed plenty sensible to me for a one-punch offense.
Orlando's Keyon Dooling and Seattle's Ray Allen received suspensions of five and three games, respectively, from their January 2006 fight, which was also evaluated by the new, stricter standards in place since the infamous Indiana-Detroit brawl on Nov. 19, 2004.
Melo's punch, when things were dying down, was certainly more egregious than what Dooling and Allen did, mainly because it reignited more of a melee as opposed to a fight involving two people. But were Anthony's actions three or four times worse than what Dooling or Allen did? I don't think so.
How did Isiah Thomas avoid suspension?
Answer: Stern said the league lacked "definitive information" to punish Thomas.
What appeared on the MSG broadcast to be a threat to Anthony -- Thomas was clearly seen warning Anthony not to go into the lane -- did not rise to the level of definitive by Stern's definition. The league maintains that it would have needed more conclusive proof, such as Thomas or a Knicks player admitting that a hard foul was ordered, to suspend Thomas. The combination of allegations from the Nuggets and footage of Thomas on the sideline, even footage that required no real lip-reading expertise, didn't add up to conclusive for Stern.
Analysis: Honestly? This one stuns me.
I find the Knicks' apparent defense -- that Thomas was actually imploring Melo to show more class than coach George Karl, since Karl had left him in a blowout -- to be laughable.
I see the replays as proof of premeditation, not necessarily that Collins was ordered to carry out a hit but that something was coming. I don't think I'm alone, either, when I say I interpreted Thomas' sideline comment as a threat and saw a distinct lack of remorse from Thomas and Knicks players until two days later, which is even tougher to defend than players' losing control in the heat of the moment.
But I'm just Stein, not Stern. No matter how many people believe that Thomas, at the very least, encouraged the hard foul that triggered everything, our lawyer-turned-commissioner maintains that you can't make the leap from what is believed to be true to a firm conclusion without better proof. There you go.
Didn't George Karl really start this whole thing?
Answer: Karl and Thomas have been at odds since the summer, at least, when Thomas reacted angrily to Karl's criticisms of the Knicks' handling and firing of Larry Brown.
But on Monday, Karl lashed out loudly at suggestions that he was trying to run up the score against Thomas' Knicks as payback, insisting that he was simply guarding against the Nuggets' habit of blowing fourth-quarter leads and pointing out that Denver produced just three baskets and three free throws in the five-plus minutes before J.R. Smith was taken down by New York's Mardy Collins.
"Where were we running the score up?" Karl said, angrily.
Analysis: No matter what his rationalization, Karl invites criticism for leaving his starters on the floor in a game Denver was leading by 19 with less than 90 seconds to play.
Karl was naturally never at risk for a league suspension, since he didn't come close to breaking a rule, but I can't imagine his bosses being too pleased that Anthony, Smith and Marcus Camby were exposed to this situation.
That said, when the Nuggets had a healthy double-digit lead in the final two minutes at Atlanta just days earlier, I didn't hear anyone accuse Karl of trying to run up the score on Hawks coach Mike Woodson, a close associate of Karl's friend Brown.
We always hear that Stern wants to send a message with this ruling or that ruling. What's his message this time?
Answer: Stern revealed an ambitious aim during his teleconference with reporters after announcing the penalties. Two years removed from Indiana-Detroit melee, Stern says now: "We have set up the goal of eliminating fighting from our game."
That should explain why Anthony received a 15-game ban for one punch. Kermit Washington, by comparison, received a 26-game suspension in 1977 -- seven years before Stern took over -- after the most infamous punch in league history struck down Rudy Tomjanovich.
Analysis: Stern might have relented in the face of considerable player discontent about the new synthetic basketball, granting the widely held wish to bring back the old leather ball on Jan. 1, but it can't be too surprising to learn that he's showing no leniency when it comes to fight justice and doling out message punishments.
You'll note that Stern included $500,000 fines for the Knicks and Nuggets in this case, after fining neither organization in the Palace melee. It's one more deterrent for the future, along with the vow to start holding franchises and even general managers more responsible for player and coach behavior.
What avenues for appeal do the suspended players have?
Answer: While any player can appeal to Stern, Anthony is the only player with the right to appeal to another authority.
NBA rules dictate that players can contest suspensions longer than 12 games via an independent arbitrator, as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal did in the 2004-05 season. In that case, remember, the arbitrator reduced O'Neal's ban from 25 games to 15.
Yet unlike in baseball, an NBA player can't play while waiting for his appeal to be heard. Anthony's suspension began with Monday night's home game with Washington whether or not he plans to challenge it.
Analysis: Anthony, according to NBA front-office sources, has yet to decide whether to seek a reduction, at least partly because this just happened.
But it wouldn't be surprising if Anthony and the NBA Players Association jointly decide to accept the full 15 games, allowing Melo to stay under the radar while waiting for his Jan. 20 reinstatement.
If he appeals, with a best-case scenario of knocking a few games off the penalty, Anthony might be risking more of a negative impact on his image by keeping the story in the news every day.
(He would also need the assistance of the players association to request an expedited hearing, something the union can request only once a season.)
How bad will the Nuggets be without Anthony?
Answer: Don't forget, they've already lost Kenyon Martin (right knee) for the season, and they'll also be without J.R. Smith for the next 10 games. Anthony and Smith represent nearly 50 points per game yanked from Denver's lineup.
The only solace for Denver in this brutal Western Conference is that: (A) 12 of Anthony's 15 lost games are at home, and (B) several teams outside the top four are dealing with significant injuries at the moment, among them Houston (Tracy McGrady), New Orleans-Oklahoma City (Peja Stojakovic and David West) and the Los Angeles Lakers (Lamar Odom).
Analysis: The quickest short-term path to replacing all that offense is, of course, trading for Allen Iverson.
So how will Anthony's suspension impact the Nuggets' trade pursuit of Iverson?
Answer: It doesn't.
The Nuggets have been chasing Iverson as hard as they can and, according to NBA front-office sources, they aren't contemplating a shift in the other direction. Denver might be even more motivated now to complete an AI blockbuster, just to ensure that it makes the playoffs ... and with the side benefit of shifting some focus away from Melo's fate.
Analysis: The Nuggets will remain at the forefront of the Iverson chase, where they've been since the middle of last week, largely because they're offering Philly two picks in the first round of the June draft.
No other Iverson suitor has matched that pitch yet, but the Nuggets still must find a third team to absorb the long-term contract of Nene -- or placing Reggie Evans somewhere can also make the salary-cap math work -- to satisfy the Sixers' current demands.
Philly has made it clear that it wants nothing but expiring contracts along with those draft picks. The Sixers' A scenario, of course, is getting those things along with a top-flight youngster such as Minnesota's Randy Foye or Shaun Livingston of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Can Denver trade Smith or Nene while they're suspended?
Answer: With special permission from the league office, yes.
There is no spelled-out rule in the NBA's operations manual that permits or forbids teams from trading a suspended player. It's an apparent gray area that would require the Nuggets, if a trade for Iverson (or anyone else) materializes suddenly, to submit a trade including Smith or Nene for league review.
Analysis: I've been led to believe that such permission would be granted.
Reason being: Philly and Iverson would be punished if a trade was blocked because it included a suspended player and neither of those parties had anything to do with the brawl.
It should be pointed out, though, that Denver has consistently stressed a reluctance to include Smith in any trade, according to sources close to the talks. And Nene's suspension will be over after Monday's game.
Can suspended players practice?
Answer: Yes. They can practice home and road. The most rigid restriction on suspended players is that they're forbidden from entering the arena on game days.
Analysis: This is obviously several notches removed from any sort of positive for either player, but Anthony and Smith can start working with the old leather ball since neither will be back on the floor until 2007.
Will Melo still make the West All-Star team?
Answer: When I spoke to Anthony recently, he was clearly enjoying his newfound status as an All-Star lock, after failing to earn a reserve spot in the crowded West in his first three attempts while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had cemented themselves as East fixtures.
"I came into this season knowing I didn't really have to worry about it," Anthony said on Dec. 9.
Nine days later, of course, Anthony suddenly does have to worry, since a Jan. 20 return to the Nuggets' lineup won't leave him even two weeks to get back on the radar of West coaches. Reserves are announced Feb. 1, with the coaches' votes likely due back to the league on Jan. 29.
Analysis: As the league's leading scorer, Anthony was a lock. But he plays the most crowded position, in All-Star terms, in the whole league: West forward.
So this hurts Melo not so much because coaches might view him differently now, but because he might have just made it easier on voters who struggle every year trying to narrow down the West's frontcourt field. If Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan are voted in as the West's starters at forward, many others -- such as Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand and Zach Randolph -- will still be bidding for a limited number of reserve spots.
And that's just the list of power forwards, which would actually go two longer if Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol were healthy.
Did the commissioner save Isiah's job by withholding a suspension?
Answer: It's an easy conclusion to draw, but there's no hard evidence yet, either, to indicate Knicks management was revising its plan to give Thomas until season's end to record some tangible progress.
Analysis: If the Knicks already knew who to bring in to succeed Thomas and mastermind the league's most complicated rebuilding effort -- and whether that'll be a new GM first who then hires a new coach -- that would likely have a bigger impact on Isiah's future than this episode. That said, Isiah certainly seems intent on reviving his Detroit Bad Boys rep after this past weekend, along with the November conflict with San Antonio's Bruce Bowen in which Thomas also was accused of encouraging players to hurt Bowen. It likewise couldn't have made him too popular around the office for the Knicks to be hit with a half-million fine.
When do the Knicks and Nuggets meet next?
Answer: Not until next season. New York won the teams' first meeting in Denver on Nov. 8.
Analysis: Thomas might get the rest of the season, as Garden chairman James Dolan promised recently, but I'm not expecting to see him at the next Knicks-Nuggets game, wherever it is. Are you?
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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