- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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That might not be the case next season.
The league maintains that its current suspension scale for technical fouls is "a fair system," in the words of NBA president Joel Litvin, but Litvin told ESPN.com that he anticipates an internal re-evaluation after the season to determine if the number of technicals that a player can accumulate before getting suspended should be increased.
"Many things in our game get reviewed after the season," Litvin said. "Certainly given the attention that this rule has received, I have no doubt that we'll be discussing this after the playoffs. But there will be lots of things we'll be discussing after the playoffs.
"We've only had one player [Detroit's Rasheed Wallace in 2007] exceed the limit in the four years that we've had this system in place. That would suggest [the system] has helped control player behavior on the floor in a way that we think is good for the game and good for the players."
The famously volatile Wallace appeared in only four games this postseason with the Detroit Pistons, but technical fouls have been an increasingly frequent topic of discussion, largely because Bryant and Howard have collected five each entering the NBA Finals. That means the two biggest names on the game's biggest stage are just two techs from having to sit out a game in this series.
Litvin, though, said in advance of Thursday's Game 1 between Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers and Howard's Orlando Magic that there has not been a clamor from teams around the league to move the suspension threshold up from seven, despite the uproar.
"We have this system in place in the playoffs for the same reason we have it in the regular season," Litvin said. "If a player accumulates enough technical fouls, our feeling is that he should face an additional penalty.
"The goal obviously is not to have to suspend a player -- ever. But all leagues suspend players for certain conduct. If a player has repeatedly earned technical fouls over the course of the regular season or in this case over the course of the playoffs, we believe a suspension is appropriate, stressing again that it is not what we're hoping to get to."
The issue has become magnified because there's a championship at stake. Wallace reached his seventh technical of the 2007 playoffs in a Game 6 loss to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals that ended Detroit's season, sparing him from actually serving the suspension. The prospect of a player of Bryant's or Howard's stature missing a game during the Finals because of a technicals-induced ban is unprecedented.
League rules dictate that any player who reaches five technicals in the playoffs receives a warning letter from the league office, with a one-game suspension to follow the seventh technical and every other technical (9th, 11th, 13th, etc.) thereafter.
Bryant and Howard actually each have racked up six playoff technicals in 18 and 19 playoff games, respectively, but each player had one rescinded later by the league, keeping the individual totals at five. Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu begins the Finals with four Ts.
All technical fouls, like flagrant fouls, are subjected to a day-after review by the league's basketball-operations staff. Nine Ts have been rescinded leaguewide through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Litvin insists that referees "weren't instructed going into the playoffs this year to pull the trigger more quickly on technicals." In 80 playoff games through three rounds, 135 technicals have been called, including the nine that were rescinded, and 10 on coaches.
"We think overall it's a fair system," Litvin said. "At the end of the day, players will only accumulate a technical foul point after we've confirmed it [the day after] with the help of slow-motion instant replay. But at the same time, referees have the ability to use technical fouls to dissolve a situation that has the potential to get out of hand."
It seems clear, at least in Bryant's case, that the threat of missing a game in the Finals and what that could do to L.A.'s championship chances has led him to tone down his oft-demonstrative reactions. Bryant vowed after picking up his fifth technical in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals that he "won't get another one." He hasn't.
Howard, meanwhile, has expressed loud frustration with the three technicals he was assessed in the Cleveland series before the third -- for what was deemed to be taunting of the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao in Game 5 -- was erased the following day by the league. But Howard also put the onus on himself to "keep my mouth shut" for the rest of the playoffs because the "thought of me having to miss another game is killing me."
Howard was forced to sit out Orlando's series-clinching Game 6 win in Philadelphia in the first round after elbowing the Sixers' Samuel Dalembert in the head. He generally accepted that punishment without complaint but has suggested that the flurry of Ts he has received stifles his natural "emotion" on the floor.
"The notion that we're legislating passion out of the game we think misses the point," Litvin said. "Obviously players can show all kinds of positive passion and emotion. As to unhappiness that players express on the floor, we don't assess a technical for a quick heat-of-the-moment reaction to a foul that a player doesn't agree with. But if a player goes over the limit and complains excessively, at some point a technical is appropriate. The idea is, again, that with these limits in place the players will understand that they can only go so far."
The advent of a suspension scale for technical fouls is one of the byproducts of firmer punishments for players in the wake of the melee involving the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that spilled into the crowd early in the 2004-05 season. One-game suspensions are assessed during the regular season once a player reaches his 16th technical foul and with every other technical (18th, 20th, etc.) thereafter. Bryant racked up 11 technical fouls in 82 regular-season games; Howard had 14 in 79 games.
The leaguewide record for technical fouls in the postseason, since the NBA switched to a 16-team playoff format for the 1983-84 season, is 234 in 77 playoff games in 1994, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That computes to an average of 3.03 technicals per game, compared to current rate of just 1.69 per game, which the league views as a good illustration to support the use of suspension scale for technicals.
"I think it's unfortunate about all the focus being on technicals, flagrants, suspensions, one team wants another guy to be suspended to improve their chance of winning," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters recently. "The basketball in these playoffs has been outstanding and I wish people would focus more on that."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
The NBA maintains that its current suspension scale for technical fouls is "a fair system," in the words of NBA president Joel Litvin, but he anticipates an internal re-evaluation after the season.