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Stern Ups the Ante on Cuban

During this season's playoffs, the feud between NBA Commissioner David Stern and Dallas Mavs Owner Mark Cuban has escalated to the point of influencing game outcomes. The league suspended the Mavs' Jason Terry for Game 6 of the series with San Antonio and Jerry Stackhouse for last night's Game 5 with Miami.

The Dallas Morning News' Kevin Blackistone wrote about the latest suspension, saying

This is one time Mark Cuban will be absolutely correct in screaming bloody murder about an officiating decision concerning his team. After all, the veteran referees, including the highly respected Dick Bavetta, who called Thursday's game and couldn't help but miss Stackhouse leveling Shaq on a two-on-one fast break, tagged Stackhouse with a flagrant foul but did not feel compelled to toss him from the floor. Shaq, 7-1 and threehundredsomething pounds, dismissed the collision after the game, comparing it to being tackled by his daughters.

Pat Riley did compare it to James Posey's rundown of Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, which drew a one-game suspension for Posey during the Heat's first-round series. But there appeared no intent from Posey in that incident other than to knock Hinrich silly. The only thing excessive about the Stackhouse incident is the penalty imposed by Jackson.

Now these NBA Finals, which just started living up to the promise from what has been an absolutely spectacular postseason, are marred, or at least Game 5 will be. Put an asterisk next to this one.

In hindsight, maybe Stackhouse shouldn't have raced back to try and stop Shaq. Maybe it was just one of many mental meltdowns for the Mavericks on Thursday night, like the Josh Howard turnover that led to the event. The Mavericks were down 17 then, but it was just midway through the third quarter. All Stackhouse was doing was trying to thwart an easy basket, which is what you're supposed to do at this time in the season. Had he been in a Heat uniform, you can bet Riley would've applauded his attention to detail and Cuban would've sounded Riley's charge. That's the way it goes. But now Stackhouse won't be around for Game 5 because one guy overruled the officials and decided Stackhouse's foul was over the top.

This isn't Jason Terry being tossed during the San Antonio series. The rules are clear on that one. Throw a punch, no matter how weak, and you get a game off. This isn't DJ Mbenga getting a six-game suspension for checking on the well-being of Mrs. Avery Johnson, Cassandra, in the Phoenix stands. The rules are clear on that one, too. Any player who goes into the stands will be suspended.

The decision on Stackhouse was subjective, unnecessarily so.

As Cuban and Stern have fired shots back and forth, the Commish really had little ammunition -- his $250,000 fine levied on Cuban amounted to little more than a parking ticket to the mega-wealthy Cuban. As the playoffs have proceeded, David Stern has finally found a bigger stick -- supsending Mavs players in critical games. (Ostensisbly, the suspender is league disciplinarian Stu Jackson.) As Blackistone noted, the suspension of Terry might be argued or defended by the league on "technical" grounds. The Stackhouse suspension has little support. Blackistone avoids the payback angle, but it seems pretty obvious. The flagrant foul on Stackhouse might not have even been a foul in the playoffs during the mug-and-assault NBA of the 1990s.

A couple of points are worth noting. One is that Cuban's pugnacious behavior seems to keep many other NBA owners on Stern's side and permits stern to indulge in discretionary behavior not necessarily in the league's interest. The other is that while Cuban is often lacking in PR skills, he has a legitimate beef and keeps keeps pushing Stern's buttons by pointing out flaws in the evaluation and selection of referees. The NBA has never quite fallen to the depths of MLB in its lack of control over officiating, but it is an odd stance when the league Commissioner's position of refeering sounds more like Richie Phillips (MLB umpiries union leader) than as league commissioner trying to improve the product.

Officiating directly influences the product sold to consumers. MLB, and to a lesser extent the NBA, lost sight of this. They worried so much about the nickles and dimes of official's compensation that they ceded a key element -- control over the evaluation of officials. In contrast, The NFL, that league never lost sight of the fact that officiating directly influences the product. As a result, the NFL not only tightly monitors officiating, but imposes a variety of rewards/penalties for good or poor performance.