As with most any endeavor, NBA basketball has a set of rules, and separate and apart from that they have the way in which those rules are interpreted, which is often a very different thing. For instance, the three-second rule states, unsurprisingly, that an offensive player cannot remain in the painted area of the free throw lane without taking a shot for more than three seconds. The reality is that the rule is more often interpreted as four or five seconds, and sometimes as "Whatever, dude." The rule book states that you have to dribble before moving your pivot foot when receiving a pass, but the reality is that NBA refs allow two or three or four steps between the catch and the dribble, provided no advantage is gained.
But perhaps no rule is more open to interpretation than the flagrant foul rules. The descriptions of flagrant fouls, types (1) and (2), in the NBA Rule Book are as follows:
If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary, a flagrant foul-penalty (1) will be assessed.
If contact committed against a player, with or without the ball, is interpreted to be unnecessary and excessive, a flagrant foul-penalty (2) will be assessed.
How's that for vague?
So, according to the rule book, the only difference between a regular foul and a flagrant foul (1) is one of necessity, which really begs the question of whether the rules makers or NBA referees understand the meaning of the word. In fact, I'm reminded of the great Patches O'Houlihan, when asked if it was necessary that he throw wrenches at his dodgeball team:
Necessary? Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine? No, but I do it anyway because it's sterile and I like the taste.
Is any foul ever truly necessary? If you accept that a hard, intentional foul is necessary to prevent a basket, if you accept that as a valid application of the "necessity" defense, then how can any foul be deemed flagrant? And if fouls to prevent baskets aren't necessary, then there are a lot more flagrant fouls occurring in every game than are ever called.
The reality is that interpreting the flagrant foul rule in game situations has nothing to do with some vague concept of necessity, and everything to do with two other things: (a) did the defender make a play on the ball (or at least pretend to, i.e. was it a reasonable facsimile of a basketball play) and (b) how hard and/or dangerous was the play?
And because there is no official codification of any of this, the actual enforcement of flagrant fouls is entirely inconsistent, seemingly at the whim of the officiating crew and the league office on a case-by-case basis.
When Dwyane Wade blindsided Darren Collison with a body check in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers, the foul seemed to meet all the criteria for what is generally interpreted as a flagrant foul (2) in the NBA.
Obviously it was not necessary, but we've already established that the actual rule book is fairly useless here. More to the point, Wade made no play on the ball, it was in no way a basketball play, and it was a very hard hit.
There are two recent plays that come to mind as roughly analogous to Wade's foul of Collison, both involving Blake Griffin. Earlier this season, Jason Smith of the New Orleans Hornets cross-checked Griffin as he was heading toward the rim on a fast break ...
... and last season in Portland Andre Miller blindsided Griffin on a play away from the ball.
The Smith play is the most similar to the foul committed by Wade. In both cases, the fouler delivered a blow much more appropriate to football or hockey than to basketball. The Smith hit appears more violent, perhaps owing to the fact that the bodies involved were significantly bigger, so simple Newtonian physics (mass times acceleration) would dictate larger forces. But Wade certainly delivered a solid hit, as much of a hit as he could muster in the circumstances. He wasn't holding back.
In each of the earlier incidents, the perpetrator was suspended by the league after the play was reviewed, which would seem to establish a precedent. Jason Smith received a two-game suspension. Andre Miller, who wasn't even called for a foul on the original play, received a one-game suspension.
But in the case of Wade, the league reviewed the foul and deemed it to be just a flagrant (1), not warranting a suspension or even an upgrade in status to flagrant (2). Going back to the rule book, apparently it was not excessive in the eyes of Stu Jackson, even though to any reasonable person it was obviously excessive. If the NBA's discipline guru feels that hit was not excessive, one shudders to think of what might constitute excess.
Cynical observers might conclude that the league could have ulterior motives for failing to suspend Wade during the playoffs. With one of the league's marquee teams already missing one of their superstars and trailing small market, boring Indiana, is the NBA willing to look the other way in order to keep Wade on the floor and give Miami a better chance to regain its lost home court advantage? It is certainly hard to figure how the hit was not suspension-worthy on its own merits.
There are myriad issues with the codification and enforcement of flagrant fouls in the NBA. For instance, why is the punishment for a flagrant type (2) foul (the most extreme foul one can commit in an NBA game) no more severe than that for a clear-path foul (two shots and the ball out of bounds)? And here's a logical conundrum: what's the point of issuing a personal foul to the offender when he's automatically ejected? But the biggest issue with flagrant fouls is the inconsistency with which they are interpreted. It's one thing to miss the call during the game, in the heat of the moment. But after the fact, with the benefit of video review, there's really no excuse for being so out of step with the punishments handed out for prior fouls.
Unless there's some other reason not to suspend Wade.