The NBA is in the middle of an unprecedented rise in player movement. Over 40% of NBA contracts were signed this past offseason. In just one offseason, the League looks completely different. Gone are the concerns of the unbeatable Warriors or the struggling Lakers. Instead, they’ve been replaced by debates about the better duo, Lebron and AD or Kawhi and PG. There is no doubt that the League is far more balanced than in years past. 10 or so teams have legitimate title hopes. But how those teams came to be formed has worried many people within the league, especially those from small markets. They already see themselves as at a disadvantage in free agency and worry about other teams trying to poach the next unhappy or dissatisfied star. One needs to look no further than New Orleans for a recent example. Teams big and small are worried about their teams being hijacked by a disgruntled star looking for a trade. Jimmy Butler in Minnesota or Kyrie Irving in Cleveland are examples. Lastly, teams are worried about free agents persuading another player under contract to demand a trade in order to play together, essentially the Kawhi and Paul George situation.
Back channeling between players, agents, and management has become business as usual in the NBA. It is how deals are made and teams are formed. By some accounts this process can start as early as the All-Star break in February and certainly by the Draft Combine in May. Even though free agency in the NBA doesn’t officially start until July 1st, tampering occurs throughout the NBA. It always has and it always will to some degree. There is nothing the NBA can do to stop Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant from having a private conversation at the All-Star Game about where to play next. Players will always want to play with each other and feel more empowered than ever to make that happen.
In order to curb that trend and restore a bit of order to the chaos that was the offseason, the NBA passed stricter anti-tampering measures. The new rules increase fines for teams guilty of tampering. Teams are also prohibited from entering into handshake agreements with players before free agency starts. Think of Kemba Walker conveniently flying to Boston hours before free agency opened with a deal in hand. This was always the case, but never before have players and agents been so brazen about it. Further, the NBA has vowed to better enforce the rules prohibiting player to player tampering. Teams are now required to keep records of contacts with agents for one year. In addition, the communications of five teams will be randomly audited by the league. Teams found to be in violation of these rules can be fined, the contract can be voided and teams may be docked draft picks. However, it remains to be seen how strictly the NBA will enforce these new measures or whether this is simply lip service.
One of the main objections to the new rules and guidelines are the privacy concerns that players and team officials have regarding what materials or documents they must supply the League office with during an investigation or random audit. Chief among those concerns is the possibility of the league seizing cell phones and computers to investigate tampering or other violations. Teams and players are worried that the League will go looking for one thing and find another potentially damaging issue. In an effort to clear up this concern and others, the League issued a new memo. They specified that they will not seize phones or computers during random audits. The League has also established a “hotline” to anonymously report tampering and reiterated that players may not induce each other to demand a trade. Lastly, the League announced it will no longer be a violation to praise another team’s player, as long as it is an isolated comment. This was a common sense change that should have happened years ago.
To welcome in its new rules the NBA fined the Milwaukee Bucks $50,000 because the general manager Jon Horst announced that the team will offer League MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo the supermax contract when eligible. The League said this was a violation of the rules, “governing the timing of discussions regarding future player contracts and permissible commitments to players.” While technically this is a violation of the rules and the fine is meaningless, it seems as if this is the wrong target for enforcement. The Milwaukee Bucks are a small market team whose main concern is resigning their star player. The Bucks have well-founded fears that another team or player could wrestle him away from Milwaukee, especially if they don’t meet championship expectations. The media has already done them a disservice by making it a storyline. One can see why the GM would not want to remain silent when asked if the team plans to resign the MVP. Nor should he have to. Shouldn’t the League be more concerned about instances like Anthony Davis and Paul George demanding trades while still under contract for more than a year, than it is about the Bucks trying to resign Giannis? Or maybe they should be worried about agents like Rich Paul trying to strong arm teams into trading players to his preferred destination. The NBA should crackdown on tampering, but the target should be those actually tampering and harming the integrity of the league.