Jokić v. Morris: Soft penalties, hard questions
Are NBA referees letting too much go in the quest to weed "non-basketball moves" out of the game? The league has to be careful here, because increased contact can lead to increased tensions
Nikola Jokić should have been suspended two or three games for losing his temper in such a dangerous way.
Markieff Morris, as the instigator of it all, should have been suspended at least one.
Both got off light Tuesday night when the NBA announced its mild sanctions stemming from the Heat-Nuggets tangle in Denver.
Just like what then-Clippers guard Patrick Beverley received for a similar shove of Phoenix’s Chris Paul in last season’s Western Conference finals, Jokić incurred a one-game suspension. Morris was docked a mere $50,000 fine.
How the NBA reacts to these sorts of situations, especially early in a season, can establish a tone-setting deterrent. While it can be argued that a longer suspension than that handed down to Beverley — who wasn’t provoked anywhere close to as aggressively as Jokić was — would have been unfair to the reigning MVP, I still say: Opportunity lost.
Yet there’s some important subtext to all this when we zoom out and shift our focus away from the specific penalties assessed and the social media back-and-forth between Morris and his twin brother Marcus Morris and Jokić’s brothers Strahinja and Nemanja that had NBA Twitter so mesmerized in the hours leading up to an ultimately limp ruling.
Referees are letting more go defensively this season, at the behest of the league office, with the primary aim of weeding out what are known as “non-basketball moves” and thus reducing the number of trips to the free-throw line racked up by noted contact-seekers such as James Harden and Trae Young. Fouls are being called at the lowest rate in NBA history at this early stage, with only 18.9 fouls whistled per team in the average game this season. That’s down from rates that have ranged from 23.5 to 19.3 per team over the past 30 full seasons.
NBA officials dispute the notion that an unintended consequence of the crackdown is a leaguewide increase in physicality, but numerous players and coaches — most recently Portland’s Damian Lillard on Tuesday night when he branded the officiating “unacceptable” — have argued that freedom of movement for offensive players is not at the level it has been in recent seasons.
The tweaks have mostly won positive reviews overall from fans and media members, as well as many players and coaches, but a potential downside is always attached to fewer whistles: An increased chance of games getting overheated or, in the dreaded extreme, someone getting hurt.
The chippy nature of the Miami game certainly seems to have played into Jokić’s reaction.
This is an excerpt from my latest NBA column. For full access to this and all of my Substack pieces, please join our community as a full subscriber.