The NBA is opening an investigation into the free-agency process after several teams raised concerns about tampering at the league’s annual board of governors meeting earlier this month, according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst.
Sopan Deb of The New York Times reports that the focus of the investigation will center on whether teams attempted to circumvent the salary cap. Multiple reports have surfaced recently suggesting that Kawhi Leonard’s camp made requests in free agency for perks that would have violated the collective bargaining agreement. Deb notes that it’s not clear if those reports are a target of the investigation.
Many of the highest-profile deals were agreed upon either before free agency opened at 6 p.m. on June 30 or soon afterward. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were Brooklyn Nets before they were technically allowed to negotiate with them. Kemba Walker was in Boston to shake hands on a deal with the Celtics that had been reported for nearly a week. Al Horford was on hold to join the Philadelphia 76ers moments after they coordinated a complicated sign-and-trade of Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, all of which occurred in the first three hours of free agency.
It would be almost impossible for any of this to happen so quickly had the groundwork not been laid in the weeks and months leading up to June 30. The jokes about tampering wrote themselves, and then came the biggest punchline: Leonard reportedly helped orchestrate Paul George’s exit from the Oklahoma City Thunder, so the two All-NBA wings could join forces on the Los Angeles Clippers.
If some teams were miffed about the blind eye that has been turned to tampering, all of them should be concerned with George’s departure. He is only a year removed from signing a four-year max contract with the Thunder, which essentially means everyone is in play. If everyone is in play — and if everyone is tampering — then chaos can ensue. At the very least, team-building becomes near impossible.
The league prohibits teams from tampering with players under contract elsewhere. Violations, by rule, can result in fines, the revoking of draft picks and/or voiding contracts, although those guidelines are rarely enforced. After repeated warnings, the Los Angeles Lakers were fined $500,000 for contacting George’s agent while he was under contract with the Thunder in 2017. Players are also subject to fines for tampering, but the league has been even less stringent about enforcing that rule.
Following reported complaints from small-market teams, the NBA sent an anti-tampering memo to all 30 organizations after LeBron James made public his desire to play with Anthony Davis in December. Davis requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans a month later, and he was traded to the Lakers after the season.
While speaking from the board of governors meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stressed the importance of addressing the topics of tampering and trade demands, if only because league rules demand it.
"I think the consensus at both our committee meetings and the board meeting was that we need to revisit and reset those rules, that some of the rules we have in place may not make sense," Silver said. "I think that's what we discussed. I think it's pointless at the end of the day to have rules that we can't enforce. I think it hurts the perception of integrity around the league if people say, 'Well, you have that rule and it's obvious that teams aren't fully complying, so why do you have it?’”
It is perhaps of greatest concern to small-market teams that six of the biggest names to change teams this summer — Durant, Irving, Leonard, George, Butler and Davis — landed in either Los Angeles, New York or Miami. How much that plays into the conversation surrounding potential free-agency fixes will be interesting.
One such fix could be reworking the offseason schedule. As Yahoo Sports reported in June, the league is also expected to reconsider this summer the possibility of conducting trades and/or free agency prior to the draft. That would allow for discussions about player movement soon after the Finals concludes.
According to ESPN’s report, the NBA’s tampering investigation will focus on the agreed-upon deals at the start of free agency, which includes a large chunk of this summer’s billion-dollar business. It is unclear yet what, if anything, will result from the review. League officials will reportedly be interviewing pertinent parties soon.
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