Of course Patrick Beverly will perform the way he plays

The NBA guard's migration from on-court pest to off-court troll can be traced back to the league's decision to get rid of fist fights. It insulated jerks from the consequenes of their actions.

The presence of Patrick Beverly can be blamed squarely on David Stern’s decision to stop letting NBA players fight.

This is not a judgment on Beverly’s value nor on the wisdom of Sterns’ decision. It is simply a statement of fact. Now, you may have seen Beverly on ESPN Monday and Tuesday, being an unrelenting antagonist primarily to Chris Paul, but also to anyone who wants to argue with him.

Beverly has offered plenty of insults and a lot of entertainment for someone like me who loves it when things get messy. But this is just the logical continuation of a process in which the NBA has insulated pests like Beverly from the consequences of their actions on the court so it should be no surprise when they wind up behaving like trolls in public.

Thirty years ago, a guy who plays like Beverly would’ve gotten clobbered for his antics on the court. But at some point in the 1990s, Stern decided he would no longer let NBA players fight. The general impetus for this was the rough-and-tumble 1990s, including a ’93 fight between the Suns and Knicks. I think the specific tipping point came in 1997 when P.J. Brown reached down, grabbed Knicks guard Charlie Ward by his ankles and flipped him into the first row of fans sitting along the baseline.

It wasn’t just the fines that started getting serious, but the suspensions. Not just for the participants, but for anyone who left the bench, and I mean anyone. Amare Stoudemire took two steps from the Suns bench in a playoff game after watching Robert Horry hip check league MVP Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. Stoudemire got suspended.

This had the intended impact: Players largely stopped fighting. Not completely, but mostly. When they did happen, the punishment was severe. In 2006, New York’s Mardy Collins clobbered J.R. Smith on a breakaway drive to the basket, igniting a brawl. Carmelo Anthony got the stiffest punishment, 15 games for punching Collins after which Anthony moon-walked the length of the court. Nate Robinson and Smith were also suspended.

Now, it’s not like a basketball had been the equivalent of hockey, but there were fights. Larry Bird and Dr. J fought. Robert Parrish clobbered Bill Laimbeer from behind just after the tipoff in a playoff game. Michael Jordan tried to scratch Reggie Miller’s face. Kobe Bryant got into it with Miller, too.

Today, there’s a whole generation of NBA stars who’ve never fought on the floor.

But there was a second consequence of the NBA crackdown on fighting, and this one was unintentional. It emboldened a group of players whose primary value to their team was not about their basketball skills, but the ability to annoy, anger and even enrage opponents with tactics best described as “cheap shit.” Guys like Bruce Bowen, who loved to slide his foot underneath a jump shooter to make his opponent fear a sprained ankle. Bowen did exactly that to Vince Carter. Twice. Ray Allen hated him for the exact same reason.

There have always been dirty players in the league. Some of them have been stars like John Stockton and Karl Malone. Laimbeer was another one, but there were two key differences with those kind of guys:

  1. Being dirty wasn’t their primary value, but rather part of their game.

  2. They’d receive some physical payback for the cheap crap they pulled whether it was getting actually punched or having an opponent do something dirty back to them.

But the NBA’s crackdown on fighting led to immediate punishment for any and all physical payback. You get thrown out of the game at the very least, perhaps even suspended. And if you’re a star player who’s lashing back at a guy like Bowen, well, that’s a tradeoff Bowen’s team will take every single day and twice on Sunday. This provided a level of insulation for the kind of tactics that for generations had been grounds for immediate physical reprisal at any level level of basketball. You hold, hit and punch like Bowen did, you’d eventually get clobbered and everyone understood you kind of had it coming. But once the NBA started penalizing any physical reprisals, it created an incentive for that kind of behavior.

This created a new caste of viable NBA players whose primary value was becoming a hemorrhoid for the opposing team. It wasn’t just Bowen, but guys like Reggie Evans and Matt Barnes and Beverly. Beverly is just the latest version of a guy who’s carved a multi-year, multi-million dollar career despite being no better than an average NBA player at basketball simply because he’s so good at pissing his more talented opponents off.

What separates Beverly from his predecessors is that he plays the exact same role in public. See, Bowen would pretend to be a nice guy. He’d even put on a bow-tie when he began working in media. Barnes is charming, too, and Evans never would cop to the fact that as Evans jumped for a rebound in Seattle-Minnesota game in 2004 he grabbed hold of Kevin Garnett’s compression shorts, administering what can only be described as an industrial-strength wedgie. Garnett swung his elbow after this happened, earning a technical foul. I saw the videotape. Evans laughed and denied it ever happened.

Beverly has carried that antagonist’s persona onto ESPN this week, willing to goad, provoke and tease an opponent — in this case Chris Paul — with the kind of criticism that would warrant a fight if the two were in the same room. That’s only natural, though. The way basketball has played now, the possibility of physical consequence for underhanded behavior has been eliminated, and it’s not just the cheap-shot artists who have been empowered, but the trolls.

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