NBA Tampering Nonsense

I read a report yesterday that the NBA was going to investigate possible “tampering” in the sign-and-trade deals that involved Kyle Lowery to the Heat and Lonzo Ball to the Bulls.  You may recall that I said last week that the NBA should – but will not – investigate possible “tampering” in the deal that sent Russell Westbrook from the Wizards to the Lakers after the LA Times reported that Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis met several weeks prior to the deal.  This prompted me to look around to find out what the NBA says the tampering rules are and how they might be enforced if the league ever chose to do so.

Let me start with what the rule says:

  • [From the NBA Constitution – not to be confused with the US Constitution]  An owner, general manager, coach, scout or player cannot try to persuade a person employed by another team to join the tampering team.

Well, that seems pretty clear to me – – until you begin to wonder what the phrase “try to persuade” might mean.  The arguments here – legal, philosophical and linguistic – could go on forever.  In fact, absent specificity and/or precedent involving league enforcement, there will never be agreement surrounding the facts of any given case.  For example, imagine if Kevin Durant said something along these lines:

“We have a great nucleus here with the Brooklyn Nets but if we had a shut-down defender like Joe Flabeetz (currently under contract with some other team), we would be unstoppable.”

Is Kevin Durant ”trying to persuade” Joe Flabeetz to demand a trade to the Nets?  Now suppose that Joe Flabeetz does demand a trade to the Nets a month after that statement.  Do you think the NBA would rule against Durant or Flabeetz or the Nets?

Consider the situation where Agent X represents Player A on the Washington Wizards and also represents Player B on the Boston Celtics.  If the Wizards’ GM is in conversation with Agent X about a possible extension for Player A and happens to mention how impressed he has been by Player B over the last month, is that a way of “sending a message” to Player B about the Wizards’ attraction to him?  It could be just that; it is also never going to be proven conclusively.

My point here is that it is easy to say that tampering is bad, and it goes against the primary objective of the NBA – – to assure a level playing field for all teams all the time.  But the devil is in the details and these devils are real.

The NBA would like everyone to believe they are serious about tampering because if people begin to think they are not serious there, it might lead to some fans believing conspiracy theories about favoring certain teams at the expense of other teams.  If tampering is permitted – not legitimized but merely permitted due to lack of enforcement of rules – it can call into question the commitment of the league to “fair play” and a “level playing field” and all those good and proper values associated with sports leagues.

So, to demonstrate the NBA’s commitment in this area, here are some of the punitive actions that the league can levy should they ever discover a “bulletproof” case of tampering:

  • Fines can go up to $10M for teams; fines can go up to $5M for individuals.
  • Draft picks can be taken from the tampering team and given without compensation to the “offended team”.
  • If the “offender” is a player, the Commish can suspend him without pay for as long as the Commish thinks is appropriate in the specific case.  [Aside:  Try to imagine Adam Silver suspending LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook for their meeting prior to the trade.  That will happen two days after a herd of unicorns prances onto the National Mall in Washington DC causing a rain of gold coins that will pay off the National Debt.]
  • Any trade or free agent signing deemed to have involved tampering can be voided.

That sure sounds like a no-nonsense stance by the NBA; those penalties are harsh indeed – – but nothing ever seems to come of any such inquiries into how deals got done.  Again, consider the following situation:

  • Sam Glotz is under contract and playing for the Knicks; his contract will expire at the end of the season.
  • The Knicks can offer him the most money, but Sam has told his agent he is not happy in NYC and wants to go to another team if that other team will give him all that they can do legally under the CBA.
  • The Knicks want to resign Sam Glotz and are not aware of his dissatisfaction with NYC.  So, they negotiate with the agent for several months – – unsuccessfully.
  • Then, on the day free agency opens, Sam Glotz signs a “max contract” with the San Antonio Spurs.  Fans are supposed to believe that all the contract negotiations for a multi-year deal worth tens of millions of dollars were done in the few hours when they were “legal”.  Nothing took place between the Spurs’ management and Sam Glotz’ agent before that time.  Well, OK then…

I am sure a reader here will correct me on this, but I can only recall two incidents where the league has declared any actin to be tampering and imposed a penalty.  [Aside:  The penalties outlined above are recent increases in penalty levels and did not apply to the incidents described here.]

  1. The Lakers’ GM, Rob Pelinka, was found to have tampered when he “negotiated” with Paul George’s agent/representative while Paul George was still under contract to the Pacers.  Pelinka was not fined but the Lakers were fined $500K.  [Aside:  The team probably paid that fine out of the petty cash drawer.]
  2. The Lakers were also fined $50K when Magic Johnson – then a Lakers’ official – was so effusive in his praise for Giannis Antetokounmpo that it was defined as an attempt to get Giannis to come and play for the Lakers.  [Aside:  The team probably paid that fine out of the loose change found lying around the arena after the crowd went home after a game.]

Notwithstanding the fact that my two examples here involve the Lakers as does the report from the LA Times about the prior meeting between LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, I am not trying to pick on the Lakers.  My point is that tampering happens; the league wants fans to believe that it is firmly opposed to tampering; but in fact, the league goes out of its way to avoid anything resembling scrutiny in these sorts of situations.

To give you a sense of the sort of enforcement mechanisms that are in place in the NBA, consider this requirement levied on team officials:

  • Team officials will certify in writing annually that they did not engage in tampering or engage in impermissible communications with free agents or their representatives and that the contracts they signed satisfy all applicable league requirements.

Well, there you have it.  There is the league’s ironclad enforcement mechanism in simple English.  Can there possibly be anything more for the NBA to do?

Finally, I’ll close today with a thought from H. L. Mencken that seems appropriate:

“To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble.  But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………