LeBron stans will think I’m a lunatic for writing this, or possibly even worse, but after what we saw from James during the Lakers’ win over the Pistons Sunday, the right thing for the NBA to do is sit him down for one game.
Which sucks, because that would mean James misses his only trip to Madison Square Garden Tuesday against the Knicks, and that hurts every basketball fan. But for smacking Isaiah Stewart in the face—intentionally or otherwise—bloodying the second-year Pistons big man and causing him to go berserk, running around the court looking for revenge that made many of us flash back to the ugliest incident in NBA history, the league needs to suspend LeBron (and Stewart, of course, too).
The NBA has done a phenomenal job of weeding out the violence that used to be one of its hallmarks—especially since the ’80s and ’90s, and most especially after the Malice at the Palace incident 17 years ago, which completely changed how the league views, adjudicates, and tries to prevent scary situations. And based on past instances—like earlier this season, when the NBA made Nikola Jokic miss a game after he bull-rushed Markieff Morris from behind, retaliating after Morris hit him with a cheap shot—it has to be consistent and dock James a game for bludgeoning Stewart.
Since we didn’t hear from James after the game, we don’t know what he was thinking or trying to do. True intentions are incredibly hard to determine when it comes to these things. You can easily argue LeBron was looking to do some harm when we swung his left hand into Stewart’s mug. You can also easily argue that after he smacked Stewart, James seemed to express a modicum of remorse. While he’s gotten away with a few questionable acts over his career—remember, for instance, that incident with Joel Embiid last season?—the Lakers, predictably, came to his defense.
“Everyone in the league knows LeBron’s not a dirty guy,” Anthony Davis told reporters after the game. “In fact, when he knew he hit him, as soon as he did it, he looked back at him like, ‘Oh, my bad. I didn’t try to do it.’”
I’m guessing James, when he finally speaks on the matter (since he didn’t after Sunday’s game), will say he wasn’t trying to intentionally bloody Stewart. From the numerous replays, it looked like James, frustrated that Stewart had tied him up on the free throw lane and hit him with an elbow to the ribs, whipped his fist into Stewart’s right eye, seeking some revenge. While James will never be confused with Terence Crawford, or any of the best boxers in the world, that left did some legit damage.
“It was a tough play with Isaiah,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey told reporters after the game. “His eye got cracked all the way open, and he was upset for a reason. So I don’t think James is a dirty player, but again, it got them going.”
If you care about Sunday’s game itself, and the large picture relating to the purple and gold, the Lakers ended up coming from behind to win 121-116. The incident went down early in the third quarter, when LA was trailing by 12. Then Stewart and James—who was ejected from a game for just the second time in his career—got tangled on the free throw line. LeBron was eventually assessed a flagrant 2 and kicked out. Since the Lakers orchestrated a comeback without their best player, maybe Sunday serves as a springboard for LA, since it’s been mired in mediocrity so far this season.
Stewart, of course, was ejected for his display of aggression after getting decked and might need to sit more than a game for causing havoc. No matter how disrespected he felt after getting popped in the face by one of the GOATs, he can’t react that way. Plowing over security guards, Pistons assistants, and basically anyone in his way as he ran around like he was possessed, trying to get a few more words—or worse—with James, Stewart was scary. It made all of us think back to the Malice at the Palace, and let’s just be thankful things never escalated to where we had another all-out brawl in Detroit. The PA announcer got on the mic in the middle of it to remind fans to “Stay in your seats. Do not come onto the floor.“ Thankfully, they listened.
The Pistons came to Stewart’s defense. The big man out of Washington who was the 16th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, has plenty of supporters who say he’s a good dude, but he also has a bit of reputation for getting extra heated on the court. It sucks he needed stitches after the game. But you can’t react to LeBron’s left like that, inciting pandemonium. While Casey said after the game he didn’t think Stewart deserves a suspension, chances are he bears the brunt of the punishment when the league finally weighs in, most likely Monday afternoon. The rematch between the Pistons and Lakers (and Stewart and James) goes down at Staples Center in one week.
But you’re probably here to read about LeBron and my hot take. I’m sure plenty of people will argue he shouldn’t have to miss a game when Stewart appeared to be the instigator. Not me. If the NBA’s being consistent and sticking to its guns—punishing unnecessary physicality and violent acts, and sending a message to anyone who commits them—then Sunday’s shot should earn LBJ a night off in New York. I don’t like writing that, but that’s what he deserves.