When Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan went on ESPN radio in March and spoke openly about the free agents he was sure would be joining the Knicks, describing conversations with players and their representatives in which the team was told the stars were on their way, some believed it sounded a lot like tampering had taken place.
An NBA official shrugged at the time, noting that it may have felt like tampering but had avoided slipping past any boundaries. That proved correct; what Dolan believed never actually came to fruition. The stars didn’t even give the Knicks the courtesy of an in-person interview.
Now the NBA has found itself in a strange bind this summer. ESPN reported that the league will open an investigation into tampering, not because of the words that Dolan said but because of the avalanche that was unleashed when free agency began.
Actually, it began long before the bell sounded to start signing deals with agreements and new locales announced even before the 6 p.m. start to free agency on June 30. The Knicks weren’t exactly innocent in this. Bobby Portis told The Athletic that Knicks general manager Scott Perry called him five days ahead of the start of free agency to set up a meeting in Los Angeles, something the league allowed only a 24-hour head start on. But who really notices the Portis deal when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are announcing their Brooklyn move — and Nets officials are shocked, absolutely shocked, to learn that they have landed the stars that they claim to have never spoken with before the announcement.
The league moved up the start of free agency from midnight to 6 p.m. to put the spotlight on deals in prime time rather than in the middle of the night, which seemed like a fair idea.
Exactly how the investigation will go is to be determined, but you can expect a lot of:
NBA: Did you talk contract details before the 6 p.m. start to free agency?
Team official: No.
NBA: Do you expect us to believe that in one minute, you agreed to a complex deal that would alter your life?
And that’s a wrap.
Tampering is a complex issue and the timing of negotiations may be the least of commissioner Adam Silver’s concerns. Players admitted that they talked moves during the season, and there are no restrictions on that. Finding a time frame for negotiations to begin may be within Silver’s purview. Stopping the players from making the general managers obsolete may not be.
Speaking of players determining the roster-building, Warriors coach Steve Kerr opined on The Warriors Insider Podcast about the move Anthony Davis made, forcing a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans. Kerr, who hasn’t sounded wrong on many things in his run as coach of the Warriors, seemed far off course on this one.
“When you sign on that dotted line, you owe your effort and your play to that team, to that city, to the fans,” Kerr said. “And then it’s completely your right to leave as a free agent. But if you sign the contract, then you should be bound to that contract.”
In theory, that may sound correct, or would as long as teams also are bound by the contract and not able to trade away a player on a whim. But Davis might be the worst example to use. Davis gave the Pelicans seven seasons, and while he established himself as one of the best players in the game, the franchise never moved close to the elite teams in the league. The arena is among the league’s worst. The average home attendance ranked 25th in the NBA last season. He was entering the last year of his contract and made it clear to the team that he would not sign an extension.
If Kerr had pointed to Paul George, he might have a case. George signed a max contract with the Thunder last summer, getting all of the money he could possibly get. He then spent one season with the team, which did all it could to appease him. There was no collapse, no shedding of talent, no wrong moves made.
George then got a call from Kawhi Leonard that offered a chance to head to the Clippers and pair up. He put the Thunder’s Sam Presti on the clock to make the best deal he could, ending the relationship between player and team just one year into his deal.
The Thunder didn’t do anything wrong. They had another star. They had a culture and a crowd. And it wasn’t enough to convince him to stay and honor his contract.