Our protagonists, in friendlier times.
Last night, Jason Smith did The Bad Thing to Blake Griffin. He has since been suspended by his Owner/The League, with his Owner/The League deeming a 2 game suspension appropriate punishment for his actions. Smith will now miss Sunday's encounter with the San Antonio Spurs as well as Chris Paul's reverse homecoming (his first homecoming, along with the rest of the Clippers' season, having presumably done enough to inform him that his new home doesn't differ tremendously from his old one).
But we're not here to gloat about Xavier Henry's jump shot or Chris Johnson's body mass index. (Though you can do both those things here). Today's all about The Bad Thing.
First, here's the video again.
Let's jump straight to the NBA rule book.
The first type of flagrant:
If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary, a flagrant foul--penalty (1) will be assessed. A personal foul is charged to the offender and a team foul is charged to the team.
and the second:
If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpret-ed to be unnecessary and excessive, a flagrant foul--penalty (2) will be assessed. A personal foul is charged to the offender and a team foul is charged to the team.
This is an unsports-manlike act and the offender is ejected.
I've bolded out the relevant distinction between the two types. It should be immediately clear that, despite the vagueness of both rules, what Jason Smith did was certainly the second. (I actually really dislike the "unnecessary" wording, because what constitutes unnecessary? Is it not "necessary" to prevent a shot? I think this rule gets officiated pretty well in practice, but the theory itself is vague enough to be meaningless). In either case, there's zero attempt to play the ball from Smith, and from the onset, it's very clear he's making a beeline for Blake Griffin's body. There's no question Smith should have been ejected.
Of course, where we go from there is the more intriguing part.
How Dangerous It Could Have Been
The most common "analysis" of the play I've read (outside of the hilarious! New Orleans bounty joke everyone's done a great job of coming up with) is the questioning of what happens if Smith's hit happens a few seconds later with Griffin in the air.
And to me, this is easily the stupidest aspect to the discussion. Every player in the league realizes the following fact - you don't let Blake Griffin rise. You just don't. Once he's up, you can contest with your strong hand, both hands, your elbow, or your neck tattoo of Abraham Lincoln, and it will not matter. Blake Griffin, perhaps more so than any player this league has ever seen, is powering that ball to the rim once in the air. It normally takes defenders literally smashing him in the face multiple times to prevent highlight reel dunks. Every player in the league knows this, as does Jason Smith.
And it's very, very clear, from the moment that Smith throws the terrible pass that's picked off by Chris Paul what Jason Smith is attempting to do - he wants to spoil the gather. It's obvious just from the basic path he takes to Griffin. He denies the angle, he beats Griffin to the spot he'd optimally want to jump from, and then he lays into Blake. Because that is how you stop a Griffin dunk - you don't allow him to gather.
Smith made no attempt on the ball and absolutely flew into Griffin with excessive force, both as per the NBA's definition and common sense. But the fact that he hit him on the ground in the exact position that he did is very important. This wasn't some random hit where opportune timing saved us from a horrific injury. Smith got to Blake when he was on the ground, before he could gather and get up. If you watch the video (especially the angle that starts around 2:38 above), I don't see how you could come to a conclusion other than Smith deliberately preventing Griffin's take off.
So, yes, the "gah, what if he hit him in the air!" bit is very simultaneously exciting and depressing to consider, but it's nonsensical. That isn't what happened for a very specific reason.
How Dangerous It Was
As Dexter Fishmore pointed out on Twitter immediately, Smith didn't go for Griffin's head, neck, legs, or ankles, the immediate highly dangerous zones for a high speed collision (to state the obvious, that'd cover the possibilities of a concussion or ligament damage in the legs). What he did was certainly dangerous, let's not deny that of course. In falling, Griffin could still have injured his knee badly, or in colliding, had his shoulder dislodged.
But Smith's tackle needs to be considered in the overall scheme of NBA flagrant fouls and suspensions.
Andrew Bynum got two games for this disgusting foul on Michael Beasley - a million times more dangerous than Smith's foul. Kevin Love got two games for (by all appearances) intentionally stomping Luis Scola in the face. Drew Gooden received one game for smacking Gerald Henderson in the head while he was in mid-air. Last year's extremely dangerous foul by Andrew Bynum on J.J. Barea (in my mind, one of the most vicious of the past decade) received four games in the lockout season (of which this Smith foul is a part). And these are all recent fouls too.
Remember Jason Kidd's horrific foul on Jannero Pargo in 2008? The one that was way, way more dangerous than Smith's on Griffin, given Pargo's head flying at 50 miles an hour directly towards the hardwood? Jason Kidd received no suspension for that one.
Essentially, if you're arguing for Smith to have been suspended for five games, or ten games, or whatever other number you have in mind (one of the comments on the above Youtube video calls for a lifetime suspension), you're asking for the NBA to completely overhaul the way it handles flagrant fouls, the subsequent suspensions, and player safety as a whole. This is something absolutely worth arguing for too. But that transcends Jason Smith's on-ground, pre-take-off hit on Blake Griffin and becomes something completely different.
In the context of the hits we see in the modern day NBA, this was dangerous but not overly so. And in the context of the suspensions we see in the modern NBA, this was absolutely what we've come to expect.
Jason Smith's Celebration
This probably concerns me as much as the actual hit; exhorting the crowd to cheer for his act of felling a player was simply not appropriate in the slightest. Yes, it was well within Smith's right to take down Griffin (and be dealt the subsequent two game suspension for that act) but the actions thereafter - which really amount to taunting - were terrible.
The fact that he approached very close to the stands, the fact that both sets of players on the floor chased immediately after him, and the fact the game was very chippy already all points to the idea that both Jason Smith, the Hornets, and the league dodged a huge bullet. We were very lucky this didn't escalate because Smith's actions after the foul could well have directly resulted in an ugly, ugly scene.
At the same time though, let's also make this distinction - you know which other crowd(s) would have responded by cheering a move like that from Smith? Every single one in the league. This isn't some New Orleans-specific violence hungry, blood thirsty mentality the way it's been spun in some sections of media. I'm not suggesting in the slightest that every crowd in the league would cheer an injury (the Hornets' wouldn't either), but every single one would have applauded this sort of non-aerial take-down, especially given Blake Griffin's earlier taunts directed at both them and the Hornet players (most notably, his clapping, staredown, and hollering at Jason Smith in the first quarter after a Nick Young dunk).
A Clipper fan even commented the following in last night's game recap - " disappointed in the NO fans... cheering for Smith after that foul on Griffin." - before following it up with this: "i expect reggie or kmart to retaliate when the hornets come to staples…"
Guess what the reaction will be in Staples if Kenyon Martin takes down Jason Smith when the Hornets visit again at the end of March? It ain't gonna be silence, I'll tell you that much. If you're going to criticize the crowd's reaction to the play, that needs to come as part of a larger social commentary on the tribal nature of the way we often take in our sports and not as a New Orleans-specific jab.
And so there you have it. That was the Bad Thing.