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No more second chances: Ja Morant 25-game suspension must lead to change in behavior

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Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA conveyed disappointment before issuing a punishment on Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant. The league then expressed optimism this ruling will hold the star player accountable for flashing a gun on an Instagram Live video for the second time in two months.

“We believe a suspension of 25 games is appropriate and makes clear that engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with guns will not be tolerated,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement on Friday. “For Ja, basketball needs to take a back seat at this time.  Prior to his return to play, he will be required to formulate and fulfill a program with the league that directly addresses the circumstances that led him to repeat this destructive behavior.”

Ja Morant expressed contrition to nearly every party imaginable, including the NBA, the Grizzlies, the city of Memphis, teammates, fans and sponsors. The Grizzlies’ star then suggested he recognizes the gravity of his recently self-destructive behavior.

“I’m spending the offseason and my suspension continuing to work on my mental health and decision making,” Ja Morant said in a statement. “I’m also going to be training so that I’m ready to go when I can be back on the court. I know my teammates are going to hold it down and I’m so sorry I won’t be out there with you at the beginning of the season. I hope you’ll give me the chance to prove to you over time I’m a better man than what I’ve been showing you.”

Both the NBA and Morant sounded thoughtful in their respective statements. Like with everything in life, though, actions will mean much more than words. That leads to two questions that will determine whether Morant’s suspension will actually lead to changed behavior.

Did NBA get Ja Morant suspension wrong the first time?

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How much will the NBA and the Grizzlies truly enforce that Ja Morant will “be required to meet certain conditions before he returns to play?” How many of the necessary steps will Morant actually take with seeking counseling, eliminating negative influences and taking accountability for his own actions?

These are all fair questions to raise frankly because the NBA, Grizzlies and Morant whiffed on the first opportunity to correct this.

Ja Morant initially showed defiance over other reported incidents. He’s involved in a civil suit that alleges he fought with a high school basketball player during a pick-up game at his home last summer. He’s faced allegations that he threatened a shoe store employee and a mall security guard last summer. Although the league could not corroborate the claims, the Indiana Pacers accused Morant’s associates of threatening the team’s traveling party and even pointing a red laser at them from a car in the arena’s loading dock.

After Morant posted an Instagram Live video of himself  holding a gun while intoxicated at a Denver-area strip club, the tone changed subtly. Though neither party condoned his behavior, the NBA, the Grizzlies and Morant conveyed more empathy than stern disappointment. Morant acknowledged the need to seek help. The Grizzlies expressed support for Morant, while declining to scold him publicly for his actions. And though the NBA ultimately issued Morant an eight-game suspension and condemned his behavior, Silver gave Morant the benefit-of-the doubt partly after showing remorse during a meeting at the NBA’s New York office.

None of it seemed right, even at the time. Through all of the parties’ various public messaging, Morant became portrayed as someone that was just troubled and needed help with addressing mental health while glossing over his behavior that harmed himself and other people. The punishment still allowed Morant to return just in time for the Grizzlies’ playoff run. And though Morant stressed his therapy would continue, he indirectly minimized the importance of actually addressing his issues by being away from the team for such a short period of time.

Even if all parties involved had the right intentions, their actions continued to enable poor behavior and shield accountability.

Following the second-round playoff exit to the Los Angeles Lakers on April 28, Ja Morant acknowledged that his incidents negatively affected the team’s play. That didn’t stop him from continuing to show self-destructive behavior. On May 13, the NBA determined that Morant “intentionally and prominently displayed a gun while in a car with several other individuals as they were leaving a social gathering in Memphis.” The league added that “Morant wielded the firearm while knowing that he was being recorded and that the recording was being live streamed on Instagram Live, despite having made commitments to the NBA and public statements that he would not repeat the conduct for which he was previously disciplined.” Morant’s public apology three days later rang even more hollow.

Because of that, speculation arose that the NBA could suspend Morant for either the entire 2023-24 season or through the NBA All-Star break. With Morant potentially returning at some point in December, clearly the Grizzlies’ star escaped a possibly harsher punishment. That doesn’t mean the NBA necessarily threw him a light sentence. The NBA reserved its longest suspensions for the main player that participated in the Malice at the Palace (Ron Artest, 86 games), a player that choked his head coach in practice (Latrell Sprewell, 68) and a player that brought guns into a team locker room (Gilbert Arenas, 50).

Still, no one should downplay Morant’s behavior and simply claim that he didn’t break any laws. That misses the point. Morant still could have caused harm to himself and others by casually flashing the gun in an outside setting. He actually did break Colorado state law in his first incident by being intoxicated while holding a firearm.

Had the NBA’ latest ruling included a stiffer punishment, however, it could have simply served as a course correction for the initial light sentence. Though the NBA could portray itself as a league that isn’t afraid to discipline its star players, the ruling may not have actually addressed the root problems. Clearly, the NBA tried to find a middle ground between disciplining Morant while giving him the resources and accountability structure to rehabilitate.   

Regardless, Morant, the Grizzlies and the NBA will reveal with their own actions next season how well they actually fulfill that goal. Well-crafted press releases and public apologies won’t be enough.

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.