Life as a sports commissioner is often confusing. Sometimes you act tough and then critics accuse you of being a wimp. Sometimes you tell a little joke and it becomes a conspiracy theory. And then you think you are acting decisively only to be accused of negatively manipulating results and a team’s ability to compete for a title.
It’s a complicated job ,and David Stern found that out again Saturday when Metta World Peace returned from a seven-game suspension for the nasty elbow that he threw at the Thunder’s James Harden three weeks ago.
In deliberating how severe MWP’s penalty should be, Stern said later that he did consider that the player once known as Ron Artest would miss one regular season game and six playoff games.
Stern judged that penalty to be major for the Lakers and it certainly had a negative effect on their ability to compete in the first round.
If there was a seventh game, however, the Lakers would be at full strength and no one could argue that, in theory, the penalty seemed fair.
There was no outcry until – you guessed it — Game 7 of the Nuggets-Lakers series. Stern apparently did not anticipate the effect MWP’s return would have on the opponent, but neither did anyone else – including Denver coach George Karl.
But it became an issue and a legitimate one. Perhaps it was unfair to hurt the Lakers franchise with a harsher penalty, but was it fair to the first-round opponent that MWP should return to give the Lakers a boost in the deciding game of the series?
Karl, the Denver coach, said no. He told Mark Kizla of the Denver Post, “You could be writing about (World Peace) being the wild card and maybe the savior of the team. And should he have that right, to be honest with you?”
That again crystallized the dilemma for the commissioner. In attempting to be fair with the Lakers, the Nuggets thought he was unfair to them.
That’s nothing new and Stern sometimes plays a role in attracting criticism. Several years ago, he was undoubtedly kidding when he was asked what the perfect NBA Finals would be for a league – obviously talking about TV ratings, revenue, headlines, etc. – and he said “the Lakers vs. the Lakers.”
A little joke there – except to opponents including the Nuggets.
But if all factors are considered, it should be noted that Stern is also the guy who would not approve a trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers because he thought it would not be in the best long-term benefit of the league, which owned the Hornets at the time.
When Paul was traded to the Clippers, it made them better and Laker fans were left wondering why Stern was involved in a conspiracy against them. And then there were Hornets fans, who were supposed to be uplifted because of the possibility they might be better in the future but certainly did not feel blessed when they had to pay major league prices to watch a team that finished 21-45.
Karl proved to be prophetic about MWP. Lakers coach Mike Brown inserted the wayward forward into the starting lineup Saturday and although MWP wasn’t particularly sharp from the field (5-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-11 from 3-point range), he did score 15 points. And he played a major defensive role, spending time on Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller.
Those two had shot 22-of-47 from the field and combined for 62 points in the Nuggets’ wins in Games 5 and 6.
On Saturday, they were a combined 2-of-19 from the field with six total points.
“Metta made some plays that were absolutely freaking amazing,” Brown said after the game. “He was monstrous for us tonight.”
But should he have been in the game?
The answer, as Stern knows, is even more perplexing than anyone first thought. Throwing an elbow generally has resulted in no more than a two-game penalty. Considering that, seven games was stern.
But when he was asked about the viciousness of MWP elbowing Harden, Stern said it was “reckless and dangerous.
“I think the seven was larger than some people might have thought from just an elbow,” Stern said. “I think that in many cases, people who thought that this was so horrible that it should result in a lifetime ban. But at the end of the day, I have to close the door and say, ‘Okay, what is justice here and what’s fairness here’ and I came up with seven.”
Considering some of the penalties Stern imposed in the past, it did seem that he went light on Artest. The MWP elbow was in fact reckless and dangerous. Move it a couple of inches, and he could have broken Harden’s jaw. It was perilously close to the temple. No one wants to think about how much worse it could have been.
Only the people in the commissioner’s office know what happened the day the penalty was discussed. Having watched the man for three decades, I’m of the opinion that Stern was prepared to administer a much stronger penalty to MWP.
Stern once suspended Artest for 86 games for his fight in the brawl at Auburn Hills. He suspended Latrell Sprewell for a year for choking head coach P.J. Carlesimo (an arbitrator later reduced the penalty to 68 games).
It was a perfect time for Stern to make a statement and he has seldom passed such an opportunity. And he also knew that only a few days earlier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had suspended Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres 25 games for a brutal hit during a playoff game. Stern rarely allowed himself to be out-disciplined.
But Stern does accept input from his top lieutenants, and that could have played a role in him settling on seven games with six in the playoffs.
Ultimately, the penalty was one game short of helping the Nuggets, but there is no doubt in my mind that Stern did not plan it that way. Given the choice of MWP being a hero or sitting one more game, Stern would have chosen the latter. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, that revelation came too late.
The Lakers now move on to play Oklahoma City and James Harden. And whether or not MWP should even be in this series playing against a man he sucker-elbowed is an issue that will continue to be troubling, and likely will have an impact on penalties in the future.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.