Before he had the opportunity to gleam with pride in anticipation of the postseason - after a successful lockout-shortened season despite an early rash of injuries - NBA commissioner David Stern was obliged to address the vicious elbow heaved by Metta World Peace that earned the Laker a seven-game suspension.
World Peace is one of the few NBA players capable of generating such a buzz on the eve of what has the potential to be the most exciting postseason in recent years. Stern spent most of his media session last week discussing World Peace and his approach with such a troublesome yet pathetic figure.
World Peace, formerly Ron Artest, was apologetic after crunching Oklahoma City guard James Harden behind the ear in the midst of beating his chest following a dunk on Kevin Durant last Sunday. Harden crumpled to the floor and left the game with a concussion.
World Peace’s on-court behavior has bordered on violent and unstable during his career, especially in the “Malice at the Palace’’ incident in November 2004 while with the Pacers. Even before his bizarre name change in September, he worked to improve his public image, but the latest incident does nothing but paint him as an uncontrollable thug.
Stern had to be concerned with how World Peace appeared to lose his grip following a simple second-quarter dunk in a regular-season game. World Peace has dunked on players before, and will again. Can we expect this reaction every time?
The issue of mental health has been prevalent with World Peace, who revealed during the 2010 NBA Finals against the Celtics that he meets with a psychiatrist. The league offers assistance for players with mental health issues, and its attention to the subject has been upgraded over the past several seasons. Stern said he is comfortable with the league’s approach to players such as World Peace and Delonte West, who have admitted to having emotional struggles.
Asked if there would be any change in the league’s policy on mental health, Stern said, “I actually don’t even want to go into that, because that would be a private discussion among us, the union, and the potential players, or some would say patients involved. Suffice it to say, it’s a subject we are continually evaluating.
“Actually, I think that in some ways, the incident brings into bold relief the progress that we have made over the years. As you may recall, we used to have players throwing punches, players coming off the bench, all kinds of things that it is now clear will subject players to suspension.
“I don’t want to go too far into the mind of the players here, but suffice it to say, I considered it to be reckless and dangerous and had to be dealt with the way that we dealt with it.’’
Stern said he was peppered with suggestions for a penalty for World Peace, including a lifetime ban. The decision was to suspend him for the one remaining regular-season game and then the first six games of the playoffs. So the Lakers will face the Denver Nuggets in the first round without one of their key contributors.
Will this prevent World Peace from committing another heinous action? That appears to depend on his ability to contain his emotions, something that remains an issue even at age 32.
“It was a brutal elbow,’’ he told reporters in Los Angeles. “During that possession, there was so much passion. A lot of people get mistaken when they hear Metta World Peace’s name. When I’m out there on that court, that passion is bottled up.
“I was just way too emotional. It seems like anger but there was a lot of passion involved. Way too much. It was erratic. Definitely wasn’t meant to hit him how I hit him.
“I didn’t lose it. It was bad timing for me. And physically it was bad timing for Mr. Harden.’’
The only message that appears to make an impact with unruly players is games missed and salaries withheld. Stern is banking that this suspension, and the attendant embarrassment, will send one last message to World Peace - and perhaps others - about going WWE during an NBA game.
“Obviously all of those things [World Peace’s history] are considered,’’ Stern said. “And, in fact, if it had been somebody [else] who got tangled up and threw an errant elbow, would it have been different from this? You bet it would have been.
“It’s really very serious stuff, and it does take into account the fact that the perpetrator is who he is, and has the record that he has. And this called for, in our view, a very stiff penalty.’’
Stern hopes it is stiff enough, but even he may not be powerful enough to harness those players who require more intensive professional help.
Ilyasova could be a hot item
Ilyasova was a second-round pick in 2005 who came over from Turkey as a 19-year-old, only to return home for two years before rejoining the Bucks. A month shy of his 25th birthday, Ilyasova is one of the league’s more versatile big men because of his ability to shoot from the perimeter (45.5 percent from the 3-point line) and rebound.
“I always try to play hard, no matter what,’’ he said. “And this season especially I got a lot of playing time and I think we really did a good job as a team.
“It’s disappointing we didn’t make the playoffs - we got so close - but we played much better in the second half of the season, after the trading deadline. And I feel like that’s why I played much better, because we made some moves and we became better offensively.’’
Ilyasova picked the perfect season to vastly improve, as he will be a free agent at season’s end after making just $2.5 million this season. The 2012 free agent crop is average at best with Dwight Howard officially off the market and Deron Williams likely headed for Dallas or New Jersey. Ilyasova could be a splendid addition to a team looking for a multi-skilled forward.
The Bucks are a retooling team after acquiring Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh from the Warriors for Andrew Bogut. The issue for Milwaukee is a logjam at forward with Ilyasova, Udoh, Drew Gooden, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tobias Harris, and Larry Sanders. Gooden is signed for three more seasons, so Ilyasova may be allowed to sign elsewhere.
“Right now I haven’t even looked at that yet,’’ said Ilyasova. “During the summer, I just want to meet with my agent and discuss those [options] and I will follow those things closer.’’
The NBA may not be his only option. Ilyasova would not count out a possible return to Europe.
“It will be an interesting summer for me,’’ he said. “I hope there will be a lot of choices to choose from. But my first priority will be staying in the NBA, and we’ll see. If it’s not going to work for me well, there’s always a second opportunity in Europe.’’
Heat embrace second chance
The embarrassment of that loss carried into this season, and the Heat have kept in mind the memories of losing a 15-point fourth-quarter lead in Game 2 and essentially falling apart in the decisive Game 6. So instead of pushing the Bulls for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Heat decided to pull back and rest the Big Three, preparing for what should be an emotional first-round series with the Knicks.
The Heat players believe they are better prepared for the playoffs than they were in their first try, regardless of the compacted season.
“I think it’s good for us to get right at it,’’ said Dwyane Wade. “This is what we have all been waiting for, ever since last year. So it’s time to play.
“The ideal situation is you want everybody to be healthy and us playing our best basketball. I know my game and I know what this team needs from me, especially come playoff time.’’
The pressure is squarely on LeBron James, who took intense criticism for his fourth-quarter disappearances against Dallas after supreme performances in the conference semifinals and finals. James has responded with an MVP-caliber season but he realizes that will hardly matter if the Heat falter in the postseason.
“In the past few weeks, I have played some of the best basketball I have played as a professional,’’ he said. “It resulted in a lot of wins for our team.
“I think physically I’m ready for the postseason. I still have a few nicks and bruises lingering, dislocated finger when I played against Indiana, and other assortment of injuries, but for the most part, by this weekend, I’ll be ready to go and hopefully I’ll be in the same rhythm that I’ve been the past couple of weeks.’’
Chris Bosh said the Heat realize it will take a team effort - more than the Big Three - to get 16 wins over the next two months.
“We’re trying to do something special and it’s going to be very difficult, so we are going to need all our guys to do it,’’ Bosh said.
NBA, NCAA agree to differ
The NCAA deadline for players announcing whether they will return is April 10, nearly three weeks before the NBA’s April 29 deadline to declare for the draft.
Stern and the NCAA are obviously on different pages with different agendas, and that doesn’t appear destined to change anytime soon.
“As I understand it, there’s an NCAA business reason for having the earlier date,’’ said Stern. “Their business reason is so that the universities can know who they have to replace, and they want to fix it at the earlier date.
“We don’t have a business reason other than a reason to allow the youngsters to have the most amount of time to decide whether they should follow through on their decision to opt in, or, in fact, would like to stay in school another year.’’
Stern said the NBA will not cooperate with the NCAA and move up its deadline because league scouts and executives have argued they need the time to evaluate prospects.
“We think it’s good to give them the longest period of time, and it’s best for their development so they have time not to make what they find in retrospect to have been a bad decision,’’ Stern said. “But I understand the NCAA’s business reason for doing it, and you know, it’s not the first time that different rules for different purposes have, you know, have unintended consequences, but we’ll live with it.’’
Stern said he would like to eliminate the one-and-done rule and extend the waiting period for college players to enter the draft, but the Players Association and the league likely will retain the current rules. The league won’t submit the official declaration list until early May.
For Warriors, a time to heal
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said the organization will not add to the preliminary rosters, meaning the team will use players such as Tyson Chandler and Blake Griffin to compensate for the absence of the injured Dwight Howard. Former Kentucky center Anthony Davis, expected to be the first choice in the draft, is currently not a candidate to join the team, and neither is Rajon Rondo . . . With the addition of Mike Woodson to replace Mike D’Antoni, the NBA now has 16 minority head coaches. According to Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, it’s the most of any pro sport . . . The question for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is whether he will retain interim coach Randy Wittman. The Wizards won their final six games and looked more motivated after dealing JaVale McGee to the Nuggets. That allowed first-round pick Jan Vesely to earn playing time and develop chemistry with second-year point guard John Wall. Washington mercifully is approaching the final year of Rashard Lewis’s six-year maximum contract, owing him $23 million. Lewis is definitely an amnesty candidate, which would allow the Wizards enough cap space to pursue a maximum-contract player.