The NBA has long had tampering rules in place that prohibit team owners, executives, coaches and players from trying to lure other players away from rival teams while said players are under contract. But, for as long as the rules have been in place, they have not been strictly enforced or even remotely followed by those who are supposed to follow them.
What’s worse is that when instances of tampering are investigated and found to have happened, the punishments do not curb further similar behavior and, in the most extreme cases, the punishments impact the wrong people.
First, it’s important to understand what tampering is, and why the rules were put in place. The spirit in which tampering rules were created was to create an even playing field and give order to what can be a chaotic environment.
The belief is that if there are no rules governing when players and agents can discuss future contracts or how teams can court players they want, then there would be no way for players to focus on their current contracts and thus create incentives for players to become negligent during their current contracts.
Additionally, without the timing rules of free agency and the trade deadline, team executives wouldn’t have time to focus on current teams and wouldn’t be able to focus on the playoffs, a title run, a title win or any of the rewards of good team building.
Pure chaos is what the NBA is trying to avoid.
So, the NBA created rules and regulations and dates that are supposed to curb the chaos. While a player is under contract, until the free agency period opens (usually June 30 at 6 p.m. ET) at the end of that player’s contract, discussions about a future contract or attempts to lure that player elsewhere are not supposed to happen. This includes public comments that could be seen as one party showing interest in another. Then there’s the trade deadline, which is supposed to provide the league breathing time before, during and after the playoffs.
Although all of the rules and dates are in place, it’s an extremely open secret that there are no rules that truly govern free agency or trades.
“There’s not a team in this league that follows the tampering rules to a T,” one front-office executive said. “But there are 30 teams in this league that find ways around the rules every day.”
And it’s not like the league office believes the teams follow all the rules. The belief among those in power seems to be that they know the system isn’t perfect, but that there is just enough compliance to keep absolute chaos at bay. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative that would make everyone happy.
One person from the league office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if a better solution was presented the league would jump at it, but there’s no hope that any such solution exists.
“The threat of harsher penalties and random audits doesn’t even make teams flinch,” the source said. “And at this point, if we investigated every possible instance of tampering, the whole league would come to a screeching halt and nothing would ever get done.”
So the league lightly investigates the most egregiously obvious instances of tampering — like the recent investigations into the Philadelphia 76ers for their free agent deals with James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr., and the New York Knicks for their pursuit and landing of Dallas Mavericks free agent Jalen Brunson — or slaps violators on the wrist for public comments.
What happens if the league decides in the case of the Sixers or the Knicks that there were tampering violations committed? The league could impose fines of up to $10 million. The league might do that and the team would gladly pay the fines. The league could force either team to forfeit draft picks, but again, a future second-round pick is not making anyone bat an eye.
“If I can get an All-Star on a long-term deal for the price of a future second-rounder, you bet I’m going to do it,” a team executive said.
And who actually gets punished when draft picks are forfeited?
A league investigation into the 2021 deals that saw Kyle Lowry join the Miami Heat and Lonzo Ball sent to the Chicago Bulls resulted in the forfeiture of a second-round pick from each team. That’s why the 2022 NBA draft only had 58 picks selected rather than the traditional 60.
Teams never bank on being able to find a future Hall of Famer in the second round of the draft, and more often than not second-rounders are used as low-level asset capital. So those penalties didn’t hurt the Heat or Bulls at all.
But there are two players who could have been drafted, two collegiate prospects who dreamed of having their name called on draft night, who could have used being drafted in the second round to launch a career, who didn’t get that opportunity and were punished for a situation that they were never even close to.
Should a 19-year-old kid and his parents have that moment taken away from them because of a handshake agreement made before that young prospect was even eligible to be drafted? No. But that’s the way the system works.
“You’re never going to stop tampering,” one team executive told the Deseret News. “Even if the penalties were massive and held more weight, you can’t stop people from talking. It’s never going to happen.”
Part of the problem is that the league does not govern agents, the player’s union (NBPA) does, and rightfully so. The agents work for the players and are supposed to always be working in the best interest of the players.
Team executives, governed by the NBA, according to the letter of the law are not supposed to talk to player representatives outside of the rules that are in the NBA’s constitution and collective bargaining agreement. But there is not a front-office employee that is going to hang up on an agent that wants to talk about the future of their client.
“If they don’t talk to the agents and they follow all of the rules, there is another GM that will answer the phone,” a league staffer said. “So you’re going to lose out on a deal or get behind the ball? No way. The way things are set up now, you have to play beyond the rules just to be able to do the job.”
I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers. But frankly, it’s not my job to.
The NBA and NBPA’s current collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2023-24 season and it seems like that would be the perfect time for owners, executives, league representatives, agents and the NBPA to discuss possible solutions.
Multiple front office executives that I spoke to said that one major thing they support is moving the beginning of free agency to before the NBA draft and that they welcome discussions on other solutions that would cut down on tampering or fix the current system.
Multiple players who spoke on condition of anonymity said that all of their own deals had been worked out and agreed to before the beginning of free agency and they don’t understand why the rules are even in place. Multiple staffers and executives from the league office said they are open to changes as well and would prefer a system that wasn’t so blatantly ignored.
The rules that currently stipulate when and where teams can discuss contracts do not work. The punishments are either too lax or hurt the wrong people and when violators are punished the rest of the league laughs because they know that no one is following the rules. At some point, the NBA and NBPA needs to fix a broken system that operates as more of a joke than it does anything else.