Joe Dumars chuckled at his desk in Midtown Manhattan as framed portraits of links to the N.B.A.’s past — Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Gus Williams — loomed behind him.
His Detroit Pistons of the 1980s were notorious for the bruising physicality of Rick Mahorn, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman and earned their Bad Boys nickname with a knock-you-down-and-answer-questions-later bully brand of basketball.
No way could Dumars pick just one particularly egregious play to characterize the teams.
“I’ve had Rick and Bill say to me, ‘Next time he gets it, let him beat you.’ They would drop people,” Dumars said. “They wanted to send a message. They didn’t take a night off of being physical.”
They are also like the portraits in Dumars’s office — pieces of a bygone N.B.A. era. Dumars, 59, oddly enough, is the one making sure of it. He develops new rules and imposes discipline in his first year as the N.B.A.’s executive vice president, head of basketball operations.
Yes, a principal member of the Bad Boys is charged with punishing those who would dare throw elbows and punches just like his Pistons teammates did.
“It’s really good to have somebody that knows what it looks like,” Dumars said. “There is no utopian view here. I know the ugly side of it. I know the physical side of it. I know the nasty side of it.”
This season, players and coaches have been fined or suspended for many infractions: hitting, kicking and throwing balls into the stands; grabbing one player by the neck; striking another in the groin; making obscene gestures and using inappropriate language. So many players were suspended after a melee between the Magic and the Pistons that the punishments were staggered to ensure that Orlando had enough players to continue competing.
Discipline in the N.B.A. is more consuming and complex than ever, as it’s easier for wayward behavior to be captured, broadcast, debated and overblown. Players are fined for offensive social media posts, and fans can share videos and screenshots of bad interactions with players. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant was recently suspended for eight games after livestreaming a video on Instagram while holding a gun in a nightclub. It’s not the same league Dumars played in for 14 years.
“I’m not a traditionalist in the way that the game can’t ever change,” he said.
‘Got away with it’
In late January, a general manager sent Dumars a video of an opponent stripping the ball from one of his team’s players. The defender jumped and swung where he thought the ball would be, but he hit the player’s head instead and was called for a foul. The G.M. wanted the call to be upgraded to a flagrant foul.
Dumars, who was Detroit’s president of basketball operations for 14 seasons, knows from experience that teams will try to extract an advantage by almost any means. That often includes tattling to the league.
Dumars and four or five people review foul calls by cycling through clips from several angles. Monty McCutchen, a former longtime official, and Byron Spruell, the president of league operations, are usually part of the process.
“You’re trying to drive consistency, so people know that you’re fair about this,” Dumars said. “Everything that we do, there’s precedent.”
The review group concluded that the head-hitting play did not meet the criteria for a flagrant foul. “He was going for the ball and he happened to catch the guy,” Dumars said.
The play probably would not have received a second thought during Dumars’s N.B.A. career from 1985-99.
“Outright brawls where guys are flinging punches, throwing guys over the scoring table,” Sam Smith, a longtime basketball writer, said of the league’s rivalries of the 1980s. “Fights going into the stands. Stuff that nobody in this generation has witnessed.”
Smith wrote “The Jordan Rules,” the 1991 book that detailed the Bad Boys’ ruthless strategies to try to stop Michael Jordan with hard contact when he played for the rival Chicago Bulls.
Although the Jordan rules are nostalgic hyperbole to an extent — “just trying to make that guy most of the time go left,” Dumars said — those Pistons teams ensured opponents’ aching bodies wouldn’t let them forget who they had played the night before.
Smith said, “There hasn’t really been a rivalry since the Bulls and the Pistons, a rivalry in the sense of absolute bitterness where the teams hated each other and wanted each other not just to fail, but for careers to be over.”
Dumars drew just four technical fouls over his 14 seasons. “I was out of control,” he joked. “But one of those was rescinded.”
The N.B.A.’s sportsmanship award is named after him now, but he wasn’t always the court choir boy. He’d speed up to try to initiate contact when he saw a big man approach to set a screen.
“The referees never looked at me in a negative way because they assumed I wasn’t trying to do that,” Dumars said. “I probably got away with it a little bit more than I should have, just on reputation.”
The N.B.A. didn’t call flagrant fouls until the 1990-91 season. The year before, on-court altercations led to 67 fines (of 101 total fines) and eight suspensions. Typical seasons in the Bad Boys era had about 40 fines and a half-dozen suspensions for on-court altercations. Last season, there were 48 fines — 15 for on-court altercations — and 180 flagrant fouls. The N.B.A.’s data on individual and total flagrant fouls goes back to only the 2004-5 season, a league official said.
“It’s a different game and if you tried to play the style that we played, in today’s game, you’d be in foul trouble,” Dumars said.
And if you complain about it, you might get in trouble, too.
‘Junking the game up’
Toronto’s Fred VanVleet knew the consequences. “I’ll take a fine,” he said before profanely criticizing the referee Ben Taylor by name after a recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “I don’t really care.”
Dumars fined him $30,000 the next day for “public criticism of the officiating.”
Players and coaches often complain about officiating, even if it costs them. In December, for example, Dallas Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd was ejected and fined $25,000 for confronting a referee during a game. The week before, Sacramento Kings Coach Mike Brown was ejected and fined $25,000 for “aggressively pursuing” an official during a game.
Some players, like Golden State’s Draymond Green, have argued that they were unfairly called for technical fouls, or that they were punished more harshly than others for similar violations. The N.B.A. rescinded a technical foul that had been called on Green’s teammate Jordan Poole this month after he bounced the ball to a referee.
The punishments and the pushback aren’t unique to basketball, and Dumars said he’s open to hearing the grievances. His phone number is plastered around league locker rooms. Players, agents and coaches sometimes call. Mostly, it’s general managers, his former peers, politicking, complaining and gossiping.
One of Dumars’s former colleagues recently called him, bemoaning that his team had allowed 68 points by halftime.
“You know what the shame of it was?” he told Dumars. “We were up by 5.”
Many rules changes over the years have made it easier for players to score, such as one of Dumars’s initiatives for this season: stiffer penalties for defenders who commit blatant fouls to stop breakaway plays.
Teams are averaging 114.5 points per game this season, the most since the 1969-70 season. Fast break points are up. A new player tops 50 points, it seems, nearly every night.
“The game is so clean now, it’s just about who’s the best player,” Dumars said. “There’s nothing that’s junking the game up.”
‘Protect the game’
A car arrived at the N.B.A.’s Midtown headquarters in January to transport Dumars to that night’s game between the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
“Joe D,” a Madison Square Garden security guard said with a fist bump. “It was better in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Dumars smiled, taking an elevator up to the court level. Knicks General Manager Scott Perry pulled him aside for a short conversation. A fan offered to buy him a drink. “I don’t drink,” Dumars said, “but I’m addicted to popcorn.”
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka exchanged pleasantries with Dumars on the way to his seat.
Days earlier, referees had missed a clear foul by Boston’s Jayson Tatum on the Lakers’ LeBron James that would have allowed James to shoot free throws to try to win the game in regulation. Instead, Boston won in overtime. Dumars was happy that the referees immediately owned up to the blown call after the game, which rekindled a debate about how instant replay and coaches’ challenges should be used in the future.
“Usually, something happens in the game that sparks a conversation, so that’s on the table now,” Dumars said.
The Knicks-Lakers matchup featured few disputed plays and no technical fouls. Dumars watched, marveling at the longevity of James, who ended the night with a triple-double and would soon break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record.
The Lakers beat the Knicks in overtime. Dumars walked inside the underbelly of the Garden to an elevator, then to a car to take him back to his apartment.
The job doesn’t keep Dumars up at night, the way, say, trading a player once did.
It does keep him busy. Over the next few days, Memphis’ Dillon Brooks hit Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell in the groin and Orlando’s Mo Bamba and Minnesota’s Austin Rivers fought. Brooks, Bamba and Rivers were all suspended. Mitchell was fined for retaliating by throwing a ball at Brooks and pushing him.
“You’re just a steward of the game,” Dumars said. “You have to be there to protect the game and make sure that it’s clean. There’s always something. There will be something.”
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