From the beginning, it was a strange suspension.
For one thing, former players who often take players’ side in these things were surprised it wasn’t longer.
“I think he deserved more . . . maybe ten games,” said TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal.
For another, the number was an odd one, and not just in retrospect. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced on April 24 that Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest, would serve a seven-game suspension for a vicious elbow to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the Lakers had one regular-season game remaining. You didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to do the math.
“I knew it was going to be the first round of the playoffs,” TNT’s Charles Barkley said that night. “I don’t think that’s a fair or unfair suspension. If it was ten games, that would’ve been fair. I knew it was going to be between five and ten, but I’m surprised they didn’t make it just the first round of the playoffs because he could come back for a Game 7.”
My memory is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve been covering the NBA since 1988 and cannot remember a previous instance when a disciplinary edict from the league office suddenly injected a significant player into a playoff series that was even through six games.
And make no mistake: Artest’s return Saturday night tipped the balance of this first-round series the Lakers’ way. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to his coach.
“We all played well, but I’d be remiss if I did not talk about Metta,” Mike Brown said after the Lakers’ 96-87 victory dashed the Nuggets’ hopes of a first-round upset.
“He was huge tonight. We put him on (Danilo) Gallinari, we put him on Andre Miller, we put him back on Gallinari, we put him back on Andre Miller, and his presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize that Andre Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-for-19.
“He’s long, he’s physical. He knows how to play different positions defensively, whether it’s the pick-and-roll, post-up, pin-down game. But he made some plays tonight. He went in for a steal or something like that, he was out of position, and then he sunk back into the paint and tipped the ball away. I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely freaking amazing for us defensively. Just his presence alone helped us out. And that’s what we missed the first six games.
“Having said that, you’ve got to give our guys credit because they stepped up and found a way to win those games without him. But he was monstrous for us tonight. Monstrous, on both ends of the floor.”
Monstrous. Interesting choice of words. Imagine how history might have changed if Stern had done what Barkley and many others expected, ruling Artest out for the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets had won Games 5 and 6. The momentum seemed to be flowing their way.
Even without Brown’s testimony, Artest’s influence on the outcome of Game 7 was unmistakeable. In the forty-three minutes, forty-one seconds he played, the Lakers beat the Nuggets by eighteen points, meaning that in the four minutes, nineteen seconds he didn’t play, the Nuggets won by nine. Artest’s plus 18 was the best plus/minus number for any player on either team.
So the question demands to be asked: Did Stern purposely make the suspension seven games, not the first round of the playoffs, in order to give one of the league’s marquee teams, in one of its largest television markets, an insurance policy in case it was forced to a critical Game 7 in the first round?
Barkley wasn’t the only one who noticed the subtle difference between a seven-game punishment with one regular-season game remaining and simply ruling Artest out of the first round, however long it lasted. About ninety minutes before Game 7, Nuggets coach George Karl was asked whether the suspension that allowed Artest to jump into the series at its most critical moment was appropriate.
“I don’t know what the appropriate one is, but I just don’t understand seven,” Karl said. “Why seven? Why not the end of the series? Why seven? It really feels uncomfortable in the last thirty-six hours, twenty-four hours. We’ve spent so much time on ‘what if.’ What are they going to do? I’m not sure they know what they’re going to do with him. I know we’re going to be the reactor, which is something I’m not thinking is necessarily making me happy right now.”
For those who tend toward conspiracy theories, the officiating in the series will provide more encouragement. And frankly, the complaints are difficult to refute. The Nuggets led the NBA in free throw attempts during the regular season at 26.7 per game. The Lakers ranked ninth at 24.1.
In their playoff series, it was the Lakers who led in free throw attempts. They got 158 in seven games, or 22.6 per. The Nuggets got 142, or 20.3. That put the Lakers 1.5 below their season average; the Nuggets were 6.4 below theirs. That’s a reduction in Nuggets free throw attempts of nearly 24 percent from regular season to playoffs.
Is this because the Nuggets suddenly got less aggressive against the Lakers? Not at all. In fact, there was a strange pattern to the free throw attempts. Through the first three games, the Nuggets led, as their reliance on penetration suggested they would. They had 72 free throw attempts through three games, or 24 per game.
From there, the foul shots awarded to Denver suddenly fell precipitously. They got 70 in the final four games, an average of just 17.5, or a remarkable 9.2 fewer than their regular season average. The Lakers, by contrast, got 61 through the first three, or 20.3 per, and then 97 in the final four, an average of 24.3, which was slightly greater than their regular season average.
This difference was most noticeable in the final two games of the series, when the Lakers were awarded 53 free throws to the Nuggets’ 31. That’s an amazing differential considering the two teams split these games and the Nuggets’ aggressive style produced the most foul shots in the association during the regular season.
Karl tried not to dwell on it, but following Game 7, when the Nuggets shot just 14 free throws to the Lakers’ 23, he seemed clearly exasperated.
“The game was so physical,” he said. “I mean, it was so, bang, push, shove, grab, hold, that I think their size won over our speed.”
Do you really have to be a conspiracy nut to observe that the statistics suggest the league’s representatives on the floor tilted increasingly toward the Lakers as the series went along?
Maybe so. Call me a homer if you like. I’ve never been fond of reflexive complaints about bias in officiating. I tend to believe incompetence is a more likely explanation than conspiracy for poor officiating. In fact, I used to publish an annual list of the NBA’s ten worst referees — alongside the ten best — in the Rocky Mountain News.
But among the factors that contribute to bad officiating in the NBA is the tendency to favor stars — the Lakers have three; the Nuggets, none — as well as a subconscious tendency to favor historically successful teams over historically unsuccessful ones. You don’t have to believe in an explicit conspiracy to believe that referees subconsciously favored the Lakers, and that this tendency increased as the series went along.
Call it sour grapes if you like. I know Lakers fans will. But when you combine the strange term of Artest’s suspension with the inexplicable turnaround in the pattern of foul calls, I’m telling you, there are folks in Denver who will be wondering what happened here for quite some time.