On Sunday, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka punched Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin in the groin, bringing on a flagrant foul and resulting in a seven-point possession that briefly put the Clippers back on top. It was a surprising decision by the referees, because most observers, including respected color commentator Hubie Brown, thought it deserved a level-two flagrant and automatic suspension. The call ended up making a difference in the game, too, because Ibaka completed a three-point play later that fouled out Griffin and helped lock down the win for the Thunder.
It was assumed that the NBA would follow the game with a suspension, because, again, Ibaka punched Griffin where it hurts. However, on Tuesday afternoon, the league announced that Ibaka will only be fined $25,000, not suspended. On top of that, the foul was upgraded to a level-two flagrant. So, in effect, the NBA implied that Ibaka should have missed the end of the game and will allow him to play in the next game anyway.
The much greater confusion, though, comes from the fact that the NBA suspended DeMarcus Cousins in December for the same offense. Plus, as Clippers wing Matt Barnes tweeted after the announcement, the NBA suspended Roy Hibbert and David Lee merely for pushing each other last week.
Barnes is understandably confused, because the NBA's structure of punishment continues to make less sense with every decision. It's unclear if the league is focused on public relations, or issuing stricter punishments to repeat offenders, or just reacting to bad actions. Certain players don't get fined for acts that seem pretty terrible, while others do, and no one really knows what to expect before each announcement.
It's difficult to say if fines and suspensions deter players from doing bad things on the court — I would argue that they do not, outside of specific rules like not allowing players to leave the bench for fights — but these punishments still communicate what the NBA wants to see from its players. Except, with such a confusing system, no message is being sent.
The response to punishment itself is not a big deal, but it does create an impression that the league reacts to these events on a case-by-case basis, with no real long-term plan. Ultimately, that can submarine confidence in other decisions, as well.