NEW YORK – The NBA’s heightened vigilance against tampering announced Friday will only be as successful as the team owners’ commitment to stopping it or, at least, having the league enforce their rules against them.
An increase in fines for tampering, for entering into unauthorized agreements with players and even for talking about players under contract elsewhere passed unanimously, commissioner Adam Silver said, in a vote of the Board of Governors. Final figures still were to be determined, though reports have suggested the maximum fines could rise to $10 million for tampering, $6 million for improper deals and $5 million for comments enticing other teams’ players.
Tougher penalties, however, only matter if the league’s 30 franchises have the will to do what it takes to impose them. And the discipline not to do what triggers them. The meetings this week and Friday’s vote didn’t only give Silver a bigger stick to wield against such violations, they encouraged him to use it.
The message of the Board? “You need to do a better job enforcing the rules that are already on your books,” Silver said, “and do a better job ensuring that there is a culture around the league where people believe there are absolute consequences if you don't play by the rules.”
The frenzied free agent market this offseason, for instance, raised red flags about teams’ compliance with rules dictating when front-office executives and players’ representatives could begin negotiations. The number and enormity of deals that leaked out within minutes of the June 30 tipoff suggested that contract talks in many cases surely began before the designated period.
There was a strong view of every single person in the room that we need to ensure that we're creating a culture of compliance in this league. 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.
Also, as free agent Kawhi Leonard pondered his decision to leave Toronto (eventually signing with the Clippers), there was speculation that his representative may have sought benefits outside the salary-cap provisions.
Tampering is a transgression that’s more troubling to some teams than others. While clubs such as Charlotte, Indiana and anyone who has a player Houston covets want rules to be strictly enforced, the Los Angeles Lakers – dinged in the recent past for talking publicly about Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo while they still were under contract – have fared well in flouting them.
The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, might have found themselves on both side of the issue in losing guard Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn and forward Al Horford to Philadelphia, while luring guard Kemba Walker away from the Hornets.
But the position of the league Friday was that all the organizations favor more integrity and less chicanery, whether to avoid being victimized or to not get outmaneuvered by some rival.
“There was a strong view of every single person in the room that 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.”
“Culture of compliance” was mentioned repeatedly by Silver, who presides over a league that, like most others, needs teams to strike a balance between staying competitive and being cooperative. If zealous owners, presidents of basketball operations or general managers go too far in one direction, there’s chaos. If they go too far in the other, they risk getting criticized and even slapped with a collusion lawsuit for not pursuing or bidding for players.
“We don’t have that problem,” one member of the Board said at the conclusion of Friday’s session.
Integrity and transparency have become buzzwords around the halls of Olympic Tower, the NBA’s headquarters in New York, as they relate to traditional priorities such as fans’ trust and new ones such as legal sports betting.
For instance, the decision this week to have coaches submit their starting lineups earlier – from 10 minutes prior to tipoff to 30 minutes beginning this season – is widely seen as a nod to wagering, providing more time to know which key players will or won’t be available for a given game. (Teams will be permitted to amend those lineups if a player sustains or aggravates an injury during pregame warmups.)
Dialing up the dollar amounts was the big move Friday, but Silver has other “tools” in his box to penalize teams that might view fines as a cost of doing business if it helps them land a prized free agent. Remember, the Clippers were fined $50,000 in May after coach Doc Rivers compared Leonard to Michael Jordan in an ESPN interview; two months later, Leonard was on Rivers’ roster.
The league already had the authority to strip draft picks, suspend team personnel and void contracts for the most egregious violations.
“Fining authority unto itself may be one of the least effective tools,” Silver said. “All of those [other] provisions are on the table.”
Enforcing the rules, beyond just imposing penalties after the fact, will require some serious policing by the NBA. Owners and top basketball executives will be required to certify that they will not engage in improper negotiations with players or their reps, giving the league more clout if they subsequently violate the rules. Five teams reportedly will be audited annually, with a framework on the extent of the league’s reach still in the works.
Silver confirmed that he has the power to take people’s cell phones, tablets and other devices, if necessary. While he’s sensitive to privacy concerns, the commissioner added: “It's my job to create an appropriate amount of tension in that area. Obviously, if people felt that they were absolutely free and clear to communicate in certain ways, you wouldn't be addressing the consequences notion of improper activity.”
One area not addressed by the Board of Governors was the role of players in recruiting other teams’ stars, not just in advance of any official free-agent negotiating period but while their friends still have years remaining on their contracts. Last season, New Orleans big man Anthony Davis undermined the Pelicans’ and his individual season when – at what many believe to be the suggestion of agent Rich Paul’s and / or fellow Paul client LeBron James – he asked to be traded to the Lakers halfway through his five-year extension with his team.
The league fined Davis $50,000 for that disruption but, sure enough, Davis and the $55.8 million left on his contract were dealt to Los Angeles in July.
Silver reminded his audience that some issues must be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Players Association. For example, moving the start of free agency up to begin before the Draft would be one of those.
The league historically has not enforced tampering rules against player-to-player contact. None of the measures mentioned Friday addressed that.
“What's lost sometimes,” Silver said, “is that for the 450 players or so in the league, they want a competitive landscape as well. They don't necessarily want a system where there's a sense that certain teams have a competitive advantage over other teams, because then you're just benefiting the players that happen to be on those teams.”
Even as reports of tougher penalties and more thorough rules were being published this week, some team executives were speculating to media folks about ways they could be bent or circumvented. But Silver did not sound deterred.
“My sense of the room was this was not just about 'league office vs. teams,' that what we are really seeking again is a cultural change,” the commissioner said. "If someone is absolutely determined to cheat in any industry and people are willing to do anything to be successful, I guess you have rogue actors in every field and in every industry.
“What we’re saying, though, [is] we think we're dramatically going to increase the likelihood that we're going to catch you. I don't want to suggest there's any perfect system. At some point you're relying, at least in part, on the good faith of partners working together and … that this is a culture in which people want to compete fairly.”
That’s the challenge, at least.
In other Board news:
- New language was approved for the NBA rule book to better define traveling violations, with the concept of “the gather” finally added for clarity. Traveling also will be a point of emphasis for the referees this season, in the hope of better educating players, coaches, media and fans, said Byron Spruell, NBA president of league operations.
- Larry Tanenbaum, chief executive of the Toronto Raptors, succeeds Minnesota’s Glen Taylor as chairman of the Board of Governors.
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