Since climbing into the stands to strike a fan during the Malice at the Palace in 2004, Ron Artest has done all he could to restore his reputation. Like changing his name to Metta World Peace, and thanking his psychiatrist after winning the NBA championship in 2010. Those kinds of things.
On the court, Artest has become an older, craggier version of himself. When you make your bones on playing transcendent man defense against the other team's best wing, there's little room for physical deterioration. Offensively, he's a strange character, infatuated with three-pointers, a luxury when he plays well and an annoyance when he doesn't, which is most of the time.
Caring for a reputation is a fragile sort of maintenance, the kind that needs to be constant, because all it takes is one slip-up to erase years of work. That slip came last night, when Metta — affable mascot, goofily askance Twitterer, Kobe counterpoint — brutally elbowed James Harden in the head.
I believe that Metta didn't see Harden there. That makes it even worse. Watch that tape again. Metta seems to lose himself in a flush of aggression, to be completely outside control when he elbows Harden in the head. You can see it on the faces of Harden's Thunder teammates, who flood the court in confusion, unsure how to respond to such brazen hostility. And you can see it in the way Metta vanishes from the court, marching like someone who knows how badly he just erred.
Assuming Metta was blind out there, swinging his limbs purely in celebration of his dunk, then the only way you can be reasonably sure of no more violence is if you tie his arms to his side. (Not really conducive to playing basketball.) Assuming Metta was blind but Ron Artest had taken over — meaning that, despite the name change, Artest still exists in that body, the Artest who will punch you in the face — then the only way you can be reasonably sure of no more violence is if World Peace isn't let back on the court. The only proper way to move on from this is for Metta to confront what he did and deal with it as something that HE did, to accept that he gave James Harden a concussion, and the suspension is a big aspect of how this will happen.
J.A. Adande wrote for ESPN that Metta's suspension should be contingent on how long Harden's injury keeps him out. That's the wrong way to think about this. The circumstantial healing of James Harden has nothing to do with the action of Metta's that's being penalized, which will be forever preserved on YouTube as the same pumping elbow no matter when Harden's head gets better. The league needs to penalize Metta now at a severity it deems proper, whether that's two games, five games, or shutting him down for the rest of the season. By making his penalty dependent on Harden's health, the NBA admits that it doesn't know what to do with a player like Metta, or any player at all. There's no question about what happened here — now the league needs to show how much it cares, or rather, doesn't.