Tampering truths ...
The latest Tuesday newsletter extravaganza goes deep on the NBA's decision to investigate sign-and-trade deals headlined by Kyle Lowry and Lonzo Ball
The tip came from a trusted source: Check out Daniel Theis to Houston. Four-year deal for $36 million.
The tip, which proved correct, was floated to me on July 29. That was draft day. That was also nearly four full days before the scheduled start of NBA free agency at 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 2.
Theis' eventual deal with the Rockets was one of roughly 120 contracts and extensions agreed to and reported on by various media outlets during the first 48 hours of the open market. If it wasn't obvious before the events of the past week, it should be clear by now: The league's supposed opening bell, in truth, is much closer to the end of free agency than the beginning.
Conversations on new contracts are happening before they're supposed to all over the NBA map. Everyone in the league knows it is happening and the league office, short of voiding a deal David Stern-style, doesn't seem able to stop it. Announcing a ramped-up array of sanctions for violators in September 2019 has had little discernible impact for two successive offseasons.
A reasonable question to interject here: If (pretty much) every team is participating in the mayhem, and if fan interest in the NBA's offseason machinations only gets more frenzied every summer, who is really affected or hurt by the premature communication? Sensible as those protests sound, it was the NBA itself, through extensive comments on the matter from Commissioner Adam Silver nearly 24 months ago, that vowed to crack down on violations of this nature. Silver’s belief at the time was that the widespread lack of adherence to the league’s free agency calendar and regulations had “hurt the perception of integrity around the league.”
“We need to ensure that we’re creating a culture of compliance in this league,” Silver said. “Our teams want to know that they’re competing on a level playing field and frankly don’t want to feel disadvantaged if they are adhering to our existing rules.”
“There need to be consequences when rules are violated,” Silver added that day.
The NBA, in other words, has backed itself into a corner, putting the onus on itself to do more to curtail blatant disregard for its rules — if only because the status quo makes the league look embarrassingly complicit.
Silver pledged to enforce anti-tampering rules more stringently after numerous free-agent deals in June 2019 became public within minutes of the start of free agency, which suggested that they had been negotiated in advance. The maximum penalty for a tampering violation was raised from $5 million to $10 million and set at $6 million for teams making unauthorized agreements with players. Voiding contracts, suspensions for team executives and the forfeiture of draft picks, Silver said, would also fall within the scope of increased punishments for teams.
Yet the league has maintained that illegal early contact between free agents and their suitors is more difficult to prove than it sounds and easier to prove in sign-and-trade agreements, since those deals take longer to assemble and provide more complex layers to probe. That should help explain why last week’s sign-and-trades sending Kyle Lowry to Miami and Lonzo Ball to the Chicago have been singled out by the league office to be investigated.
The following five answers to questions on the matter will hopefully explain a little more:
How strong are the cases against Miami and Chicago?
When Miami exercised Goran Dragić’s $19.4 million team option for next season on Free Agency Eve on Aug. 1, its willingness to surrender salary-cap space to retain Dragić suggested to numerous rival teams that the Heat knew they were getting a free-agent commitment from Lowry and knew they had a sign-and-trade deal in place with Toronto. The Heat will undoubtedly counter by insisting that they did nothing wrong — that they were able to construct a sign-and-trade so swiftly by leaning on knowledge gained from their extensive discussions with the Raptors on a potential Lowry deal before the March 25 trade deadline. Miami is likewise sure to point to Lowry’s status as the godfather of Heat star Jimmy Butler’s daughter as a further connection between the parties, since league officials have long held that policing player-to-player discussion is something they intend to avoid absent proof that the player is operating as a proxy for his own front office.
How Chicago hopes to dodge trouble is less clear. The Bulls and Pelicans indeed discussed various deal scenarios featuring Ball before the trade deadline like the Heat and Raptors, but the sign-and-trade agreement they ultimately struck was the summer’s first prominently reported done deal. Power agent Rich Paul, who represents Ball, told The Athletic right at 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 2 (see enclosed tweet) that Ball was headed to the Bulls on a four-year, $85 million deal. One minute later, at 6:01 p.m., Paul told ESPN (see the second enclosed tweet) that the deal sending Ball to Chicago was a sign-and-trade. When the agent issues such confirmations with name attached, they are treated as fact. How could the Bulls and Pelicans have hashed out a full sign-and-trade agreement in one minute if the parameters weren’t discussed in advance?
Agent impatience thus appears to have put the Bulls in a precarious position.
Numerous teams have complained that the rush they feel to engage in free-agent discussions before they are actually permissible stems from agent pressure, as well as the corresponding fears of being left out of the transaction fest if they don’t participate. That certainly does not absolve teams from participation — it’s way too convenient to pass off blame in that manner — but front offices tend to be the party with the most to lose, since typically only teams get sanctioned for tampering violations. The NBA has limited-to-no jurisdiction over agents, who are governed by the Players Association.
What are the chances that either one of these sign-and-trades, or both, is voided by the league?
Slim to none. “Unwinding” one of these deals, to use the insider term for dismantling an NBA transaction, is probably the only measure that the league could take to truly dissuade such overt rule-breaking, but no one I’ve encountered in recent days expects either sign-and-trade to be rescinded after both deals were publicly announced as complete.
Yet if wrongdoing is ultimately proven, Miami and Chicago have to be, at the very least, hit harder than Milwaukee was last offseason. The Bucks were fined $50,000 and docked a future second-round pick after ESPN reported that they had already reached an agreement on a sign-and-trade transaction that would land them Sacramento restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanović … more than three days before free-agent discussions of any kind were allowed to start.
The Bucks’ sanctions were modest in large part because they lost the player. Bogdanović and his representatives insisted that they never agreed to anything with the Bucks and he wound up signing a four-year, $72 million deal with Atlanta.
If the Heat end up with Lowry and the Bulls get to keep Ball, Milwaukee will have ample justification to protest louder than anyone, provided those teams are found to have committed violations. Fairness dictates that Miami and Chicago, in that scenario, must be fined larger amounts and/or stripped of more valuable draft capital.
What likely happens to the teams that helped Lowry (Toronto) and Ball (New Orleans) get to new destinations?
If the Bogdanović case is a trusty guide … nothing.
Although the Kings presumably wish the reported Bogdanović-to-Milwaukee deal had gone through, since they were expected to receive Donte DiVincenzo in that swap and wound up with nothing when they decided not to match Atlanta’s offer to Bogdanović, they were not penalized by the league last year because discussing trades with other teams (even involving restricted free agents) is allowed.
Is “tampering” really the right word for what’s going on here?
Not exactly. Tampering typically refers to the practice of a front-office executive, coach or player trying to entice a player under contract with another team to join their franchise. NBA general counsel Rick Buchanan, heading into the 2020-21 season, said the more accurate term to describe the Bucks’ violations in the Bogdanović affair was “gun jumping.”
“[It’s] the idea that the flag for free agency goes down at the same time and everybody should start having those conversations at the same time for reasons of competitive fairness,” Buchanan said. “This is not about tampering. Tampering is the rule where you're having impermissible contacts with a player who is under contract to another team. And so here the violation was that the team had conversations about a free-agent contract with the representative for this player prior to the time when the CBA permitted them to do that, and as a result they were penalized.”
Why aren’t more deals being investigated than the Lowry and Lonzo sign-and-trades? So many happened so fast.
That’s true. Those 120 or so contracts and extensions agreed to during the first 48 hours of free agency exceeded more than $3 billion in value, according to research from Spotrac’s Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA).
It is possible that the NBA is looking into other signings and sign-and-trades without those investigations being revealed yet. If the league does not take that step, cries of selective enforcement will only grow noisier.
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