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The NBA needs to figure out flagrant foul calls

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Between the Isaiah Thomas and Zach Randolph ejections two days apart, the Celtics have seen firsthand how the arbitrary distinction between flagrant one and two can severely impact a game. The NBA needs to come up with a more definitive difference.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The flagrant 1 and flagrant 2 fouls are close relatives. Both provide the victim’s team with two free throws and the ball—a harsh penalty for a devastating crime. The distinction between them, an extremely thin line, has the ability to decide games over a flash of contact in one of the fastest sports on earth. It should not be this way.

On Sunday Isaiah Thomas was ejected with just over two minutes left in a game at Miami. He was being defended closely in the corner, began rotating his arms to protect the ball and ended up elbowing Justice Winslow in a vicious blow that left blood pouring out of a hole in his cheek. The sight was unpleasant and undoubtedly played a role in Thomas’s ejection.

Earlier in the game Hassan Whiteside received a technical one, the foul that doesn’t get you ejected, for elbowing Kelly Olynyk in the post in a similar attempt to protect the ball. The difference? No blood and a quick show of remorse by Whiteside.

What both calls had in common is that they were upgraded from calls on the floor. Thomas’s was ultimately downgraded to a flagrant 1 in retrospect, which doesn’t change the fact that he was kicked out of a game that was tightening rapidly as time ran off the clock. An admitted miscue of that magnitude by the NBA on the part of the officials screams that something is wrong here. It could have swung the outcome of the game, and in a jam-packed Eastern conference this season every win matters immensely in determining seeding.

Then there was this Tuesday. In an ironic twist the Celtics found themselves on the opposite end of a player being ejected for a flagrant 2. Zach Randolph was boxing out Olynyk as Troy Daniels nailed a deep three-pointer. As the ball rushed through the net an elbow connected with Olynyk’s neck. Olynyk fell to the ground like a bag of bricks, and even though there wasn’t a foul called on the floor, the officials went to review and upgraded the no-call into a flagrant 2 foul and subsequent ejection. The whole process had the feel of a jury declaring “not guilty”, then the judge administering the death sentence.

This incident was in the midst of a one-point game in overtime. But as Thomas reminded the referees, there was now pressure after IT’s ejection to be consistent. Contact that looked devastating had to be met with an ejection. But did it?

While Thomas mentioned “bball move,” the NBA makes no such clarification in what they determine to be a flagrant 1 or flagrant 2. A flagrant 1 is described as an unnecessary foul, while a flagrant 2 is described as unnecessary and excessive.

Excessive is the only word separating a big foul call from a possibly game-deciding ejection in the rush of play. That’s as vague as it gets. How many slices of pizza defines “excessive eating?” I may say five, but Brad Stevens may say three. It’s as arbitrary as that. We’re not talking about food here, we’re talking about basketball games being decided on calls that are impossible to make.

There is of course distinction necessary between levels of unnecessary contact. There’s a difference between elbows being thrown around in the heat of play and this:

What is clear is that Thomas and Randolph nowhere near approached the level of atrocity of what Metta World Peace did to James Harden. How can the penalty be the same?

There are several issues that come into play here. First is the official’s ability to review any contact for possible flagrant status. Neither Thomas nor Randolph were called for flagrant fouls on the floor. Both were upgraded upon substantial video review—something that many criticize for conflicting with pace of play but which is one of basketball’s chief advantages over other sports.

Once contact goes to review for flagrant status anything can happen. World Peace’s contact was clearly worthy of ejection on the spot, and it was called on the floor without need for video review. This foul, also on Olynyk, who takes quite the beating, was outside the realm of basketball completely. There was no box-out, no offense or defense being played, no pick being set. It looked more like something out of an offensive lineman highlight tape, minus the fact that a hit like that is illegal in football too.

The point is that the NBA needs to change its description of a flagrant 2 foul. It should not even be related to the flagrant 1. As Thomas said, it should be reserved for fouls that are not basketball plays. World Peace throwing an elbow while the ball is out of bounds, Whiteside leveling Olynyk—those are not basketball plays. They are not anything like what Thomas and Randolph were ejected for.

Until this happens, there will continue to be excessive replays that should only be reserved for fouls thought to be outside the realm of basketball. There should be no replays between common fouls and flagrant 1 fouls. It’s like the idea of reviewing balls and strikes: it can be done on the floor because it’s arbitrary.

The Celtics may have won Tuesday on the back of a historic effort by Thomas, but they were definitely aided by the horrendous ejection of Randolph. The league must take steps to avoid more costly, unnecessary ejections in the future and change the wording. Separate the relationship between the flagrant fouls because they should not be close calls.