The short answer is: Probably, but the question isn’t as cut and dried as you might think.
First, let’s be crystal clear about the rules. There is nothing in the NBA rule book that says a player must be suspended for throwing an elbow above the shoulder level. Some people think an elbow to the head is an automatic suspension; it’s not.
The rule those folks are likely thinking of is Rule 12A–Section V–I(5), which reads that:
A player, coach or trainer must be ejected (my emphasis) for:
(3): Technical foul for attempted punch or swing with no contact or a thrown elbow toward an opponent above shoulder level with no contact.
To be clear: The ejection is mandatory, not any suspension. This came up during last year’s playoffs, when Dwight Howard came within an inch of decapitating Sam Dalembert (video after the jump) in the early moments of Game 5 of the Philly-Orlando first-round series but did not get ejected. The NBA suspended Howard for the next game, but that suspension was not mandatory under league rules.
That’s not to say the rule book doesn’t set out some guidelines about suspensions, because it does.
Here are some rules that may or may not be relevant in KG’s situation:
Section 9(b): Any player who throws a punch, whether it connects or not, has committed an unsportsmanlike act. He will be ejected following confirmation during review by instant replay and suspended for a minimum of one game.
An elbow is not a punch, so this section does not apply. The NBA rule book makes distinctions between elbows and punches throughout; it’s clear the league considers a closed-fist punch a more serious thing than an elbow.
The following clause has more bearing in the KG-Richardson fiasco:
Violent acts of any nature on the court will not be tolerated. Players involved in altercations will be ejected, fined and/or suspended.
There is absolutely no justification for fighting in an NBA game. The fact that you may feel provoked by another player is not an acceptable excuse. If a player takes it upon himself to retaliate, he can expect to be subject to appropriate penalties.
Again: There is no mandatory suspension mentioned here; instead, the league rules place broad discretion with the commissioner’s office. This has created a situation in which the precedent is not totally consistent but clearly leans toward a suspension of KG.
Below are some recent elbow/forearm incidents that have resulted in one-game suspensions.
Here’s the Howard/Dalembert elbow from last season:
As I said last night: This is a more violent act than KG’s elbow but did less damage because Howard did not land it cleanly.
Also more of a forearm than an elbow: This attempted shot from Trevor Ariza on DeMar DeRozan, which earned Ariza a one-game suspension earlier this season:
And we all remember the league suspended Rafer Alston one game for this incident with Eddie House:
This is a love tap compared to KG’s elbow, but Rafer obviously meant to hit Eddie in the head. You could make a pretty solid argument that KG’s elbow was meant to hit Q-Rich somewhere but not necessarily in the head.
And remember when Ray Allen got suspended one game for doing what every player outside Cleveland probably wants to do? (Initial contact at about the :22 mark):
This is sort of similar: Ray throws a semi-blind elbow at a guy behind him that may or may not have targeted a fairly sensitive area. This is bad precedent for KG. One could argue that Ray’s offense was worse, since it occurred during the flow of the game, while KG was responding to an increasingly chaotic situation around him. (Of course, KG escalated that situation…).
If KG is suspended, it won’t be the first time the league has forced him to sit out a game because of an elbow. He got suspended one game for this shot on Andrew Bogut—another elbow that occurred during play—which may explain Bogut’s reaction to Saturday night’s incident:
Again: More bad precedent if you’re hoping KG escapes with a (meaningless) late-game ejection.
One last bit of elbow=one-game suspension precedent, this one involving Kobe Bryant:
So is all the precedent against KG here? Most of it is, but there are a couple of exceptions that may apply.
The first also features Kobe as the elbow-thrower, and I suspect many of you remember it from last year’s post-season. The league let Bryant off with a flagrant foul for this elbow to Ron Artest’s throat area (fast forward to the 1:05 mark for the key replay):
This is pretty similar to what KG did, only the elbow doesn’t hit Artest’s face. Does it make it better or worse to do this in the flow of the game versus during a brewing altercation?
Finally, KG could look to his teammate, Rasheed Wallace, for some hopeful precedent. The league let Sheed off with a $5,000 fine for this shot at Zydrunas Ilgauskas from a Feb. 2006 game (slow-mo at :23 mark):
That’s pretty bad for a fine, but of course this happened more than four years ago, and the league has grown more wary of shots to the head since then. But it’s pretty obvious Sheed meant to do some damage here, and he basically admitted it after the game:
“I’m not going to start the game by cracking a cat in the skull if I don’t get elbowed first,” he said.
So what’s the final verdict on KG? First, it’s pretty clear that all of these situations are different. That’s why it’s hard to create a universal rule.
But with a couple of exceptions, the precedent is clear: You throw an elbow intended to hit someone above the chest, and you’re facing a suspension. And if the league wants to keep up a strong campaign against fighting and blows to the head, it almost has to suspend KG. If you carve out exceptions for blind elbows or elbows thrown in the middle of crazy situations, you’re opening the door for greater uncertainty.
You can’t do what KG did in that spot. It’s too dangerous, and if I were a betting man, I’d bet he’s on the bench for Game 2.
And I wouldn’t have much grounds to be upset about it.