With the Warriors up by 25 points against the Mavericks and a little under three minutes left in the game, Jordan Bell blocked a Dwight Powell three, got the ball on the fast break, and decided to throw the ball off the backboard to himself for a dunk. The fans roared. The Warriors players on the bench loved it. Kevin Durant was in disbelief and everyone, including the commentators, seemed to agree that it was a wonderful thing.
Everyone except the Mavericks and head coach Rick Carlisle. They were upset by what Bell did. Steve Kerr tried to apologize to Carlisle afterwards, but was rebuffed.
Steve Kerr tried to apologize to Rick Carlisle postgame about the Jordan Bell dunk, Carlisle zipped right past, displeased.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 24, 2017
Even LeBron James weighed in this morning, saying that what Bell did was innocent and that players are taught to play hard until the end of the game.
I generally think that unwritten rules are ridiculous. Most of them serve to stifle player personality, like baseball’s “don’t ‘pimp’ your homer.” It works to package the game in service of a certain type of fan that believes in the “right way to play the game.” Which is another way of saying boring.
But there are some unwritten rules that I agree with. I like unwritten rules that enforce a basic courtesy without acting to kill the fun of the game or its personalities.
Soccer has one where if a player is down injured, whoever has the ball kicks it out of play so the player can receive treatment. If it’s severe or a head injury, the referee has the power to stop play, but generally if it’s something like a cramp, it’s up to the players themselves to take action. There’s no requirement to do so, but it’s a universal agreement that it should be done as a basic courtesy to the injured player and his short-handed teammates.
There’s also dribbling the clock out as a courtesy during the later stages of a rout and not sliding under a player when they’re coming down from a jump shot. The former is done out of respect to an opponent’s ego and the latter for their health.
Not showing off with an off-the-backboard dunk in a blowout follows the same line as running out the clock. The deed has been done, the starters are out, your team has won. There’s no need to add insult to injury — physical or emotional.
The times when teams refuse to put the ball out of play when an opposing player is injured, there’s almost always immediate retaliation by the fans booing the decision and a hard tackle from a teammate of the injured player.
The retaliation happens in basketball as well. When players try to do what Bell did, an opposing defender sometimes meets them with a hard foul as an enforcement of the unwritten rule. J.R. Smith commented on an Instagram of the dunk with that sentiment. It’s different that one rule is in service of a physical injury and the other is to save embarrassment, but the offense still stands. What Bell did was unnecessary and only works to bruise the pride his opponents.
It’s about respect. Not just for the competition but for those like yourself, who have worked hard and are out there doing their jobs just as you are. It’s about seeing others as part of the labor force putting on a show for the audience, while also understanding that the end of the game isn't the time to grab the spotlight. Bell’s mistake is that in a moment of excitement, he unnecessarily shamed those just like him when that show was practically over.
The fantasy that players must or do hate each other is often times generated by the audience as a way to give gravity to the games. When the games are done, these same players talk, hug, and are friends away from the camera. Kicking the ball out of play or not showing off while up 25 points is a nice acknowledgement of that respect between peers.
Ironically, no one understands this more than Draymond Green who loved the dunk in the moment. The Warriors sit on the edge of disrespect as a show of skill and as disregard for their opponents and Green is at the center of it. He is blunt to a fault and it’s part of his appeal. He will trash talk legends, contemporaries, rookies, and anyone else who is in the vicinity, but he knows that it’s all part of the spectacle of the game. During the Game 5 of last season’s Finals, he helped up a few Cavaliers players when they fell and he explained why during the Warriors title celebration:
Obviously as far as helping those guys up, like I respect them. There's a mutual respect. They're champions, we're champions. Like I said, that goes along the same lines of me saying like -- I'm telling you, I had this whole document ready. I was ready to bash everybody. But I just -- I have too much respect for them. The things that they bring to the floor, a great leader in LeBron and Kyrie, that's where the help comes. Because at the end of the day, it's basketball. I think that so many times we let outside things make it more than that. It's basketball. I think that like why wouldn't I help a guy up off the floor? Like owners have drinks together at halftime. Like while we're battling, they're having drinks together at halftime, and yet I'm supposed to see a guy fall and look at him like, no, I'm not helping you up. No, I'm just going to try to punish you on the floor. And at the end of the day, that's what it's all about.
It comes down to, don’t be an asshole. Bell’s offense isn’t major but it’s understandable why it was annoying. The game was done, even if the clock wasn’t at zero. The Warriors were up by too much to be overcome, the starters were on the bench, and the players on the court were playing out the remaining minutes as a formality.
No one would condemn Bell for blocking the shot, that’s playing hard. Or even if he did that dunk when the game was still competitive. The Warriors do things like that all the time in the middle of games and it’s usually celebrated. Most disrespect is permissible when the game is on the line and many unwritten rules generally are dumb. But it wasn’t necessary for Bell to showboat to further embarrass a defeated opponent.