If you want to get primal, I guess you could say that NBA players really have just two options when their teammates get into on-court dust-ups: fight or flight.
In today's NBA, though, it's becoming apparent that those choices have been reduced by half. Even the slightest hint of post-play physicality often results in a fine or suspension.
Matt Barnes, the Los Angeles Clippers' resident attack dog, has been consistent in his willingness to mix it up throughout his career. When his teammates have been in trouble, he's always the first one to step in and defend them, usually in a way that winds up escalating the situation.
But after he was ejected from Wednesday night's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder for coming to Blake Griffin's defense against Serge Ibaka, Barnes fired off a rash, quickly deleted tweet declaring he was done settling his teammates' scores.
We all know that the very next time Barnes has an opportunity to dive into a fracas, he will. So it's unwise to read anything into his tweet beyond fleeting frustration. But the small forward with the big bark raises an interesting question nonetheless: How should guys like Barnes respond when tempers flare on the court?
Back in the day, violence was commonplace in the NBA and enforcers really had no choice but to get involved when things got testy.
In the 1984-85 season, Julius Erving and Larry Bird got into it with one another, which prompted an all-out melee between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. In a moment that could simply never happen today, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley actually held Bird steady while Dr. J fired off righty rabbit punches to the Legend's face.
It was a wild scene, and one that symbolized the us-against-them mentality that completely dominated the NBA 30 years ago.
Suffice it to say that these days, it's much harder to offer the kind of assistance Barkley and Malone gave Dr. J without being charged with battery. Incredibly, nobody involved in that fight was suspended for a single game.
If this had happened in modern times, you can bet that Erving, Malone and Barkley would have faced harsh discipline from the NBA.
Clearly, this approach isn't an option anymore.
As the NBA began to enjoy rapid expansion in the 1990s and early 2000s, the league's overall tenor began to change. Organizations became cognizant of cost of suspensions as the commissioner's office did its best to crack down on violence.
There were still plenty of altercations, though, and many of them involved Jeff Van Gundy's New York Knicks.
Physical play was a huge part of the Knicks' identity, and that led to a number of fights and a handful of memorable moments. Van Gundy and his coaching staff endorsed hard-nosed basketball but were also hellbent on trying to curb the violence that arose when frustrated opponents had had enough of the Knicks' rough-and-tumble style.
The results were sometimes hilarious.
Van Gundy's iconic moment helped prove that there really wasn't much coaches could do to curb on-court violence. Skirmishes weren't as shockingly intense as they'd been in the past, but it was abundantly clear that players were still going to settle disputes themselves.
In 2004, the league finally had no choice but to change its policies.
The Tipping Point
The brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, known now as "Malice at the Palace," brought about a sea change in NBA discipline that forever altered the way players reacted to on-court fights.
David Stern handed out massive suspensions, notably banning the man then known as Ron Artest for nearly a full season.
The league had little choice in the matter. Facing an image crisis that threatened to undo all of its efforts to bill itself as family-friendly entertainment, the NBA made it virtually impossible for the ugly situation in Detroit to repeat itself.
Going into the stands was no longer an option, even in defense of teammates. In addition, players on the bench had to stay put, no matter what was happening on the floor.
The Phoenix Suns learned how serious the league was when both Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw earned suspensions for leaving the bench in Game 4 of the Suns' Western Conference Semifinals series against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.
STAT and Diaw were coming to the aid of their teammates in a fracas that started when Robert Horry body-checked Steve Nash into the scorer's table. Neither player threw a punch or even confronted a Spurs player directly, but the NBA's new rules required them both to sit out of Game 5.
That was a series the Suns could have won, but losing two key players put an end to what was probably the best title shot Nash and his Phoenix teammates ever had.
In the aftermath, Stoudemire couldn't really complain about the result.
The word was out around the NBA: Coming off the bench was no longer an option, no matter how intense emotions got on the floor.
What to Do Today
That brings us back to present.
Players today are much less likely to haul off and slug an opponent. They've seen too many instances of weighty fines, lost game checks and tarnished images to risk a fight. In addition, they've been trained to stay seated on the bench when their teammates are in trouble.
The NBA's plan to curb violence has worked.
Even instances like the one that arose between Barnes and Ibaka show how effectively the league has curtailed fighting.
Just look at Barnes. He's not seriously interested in throwing blows. He went at Ibaka with the hope of getting decked, but you can tell by his face that he knows there's no way it's going to happen. NBA fights today generally feature a couple of exploratory shoves, followed by a lot of noncommittal finger-pointing and glaring.
Basically, everyone is pretending they're really going to go at it without any real intention of doing so.
That's not any kind of condemnation of the toughness of today's players. Fighting is a stupid, unnecessary impulse, especially in the context of an organized game played for purposes of entertainment.
It's a primal response players have learned to suppress more effectively.
In some sense, Barnes is right. It's not worth it to stand up for your teammates—especially because today's NBA isn't a league that will allow even the slightest whiff of violence to taint its growing appeal.
The Cost of Evolving
Look, it's unequivocally a good thing that today's game is less violent than it used to be. The problem, though, is that players are now trying to exploit the league's sensitivity to overt physicality.
Guys like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul flop and flail around, hoping to goad opponents into losing their cool.
When they're successful, players like Barnes often step in.
In truth, backing down is probably what Barnes and other enforcers should start doing. The NBA has taken fighting out of the game through a strict disciplinary system, so everybody knows that when players show signs of throwing down, they're really just posturing.
In the event that a real, honest-to-goodness fight breaks out, it'd be hard to criticize a player for doing whatever was necessary to defend a teammate. But the NBA doesn't have real fights anymore.
It's time for enforcers like Barnes to ditch the act.