As fans and media, we’re allowed to bash around the idea of Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul heading to other teams when they become free agents in July. We’re not employed by the NBA, and we’re not even really required to call them “Lakers center” or “Clippers point guard” when we discuss their futures.
NBA teams aren’t allowed such freedoms. In the past, several prominent league executives have been fined hefty amounts merely for honestly answering no-brainer questions about future free agents. Howard and Paul are still technically members of the since-dismissed Lakers and Clippers until their contracts run out and they become free agents on July 1. Until then, teams can’t even bring up their names, much less talk about coveting them.
Which is why the Atlanta Hawks could be in a whole lot of trouble. As a fan and member of the media, I can point out that the Hawks began clearing cap space for a run at Howard and Paul last summer. New general manager Danny Ferry made quick work of the above-average ceiling so happily clung to by his predecessor, but because of that smart decision the team and its fans are facing an uneasy future that could result in a Howard and/or Paul-less training camp. That’s a hard sell to season ticket holders, which is why the Hawks reportedly sent out a letter to potential ticket buyers talking up a future that specifically mentions Mssrs. Howard and Paul.
The letter, obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was on team letterhead and headlined “Hot New Player news: Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.”
It began with the statement: “The buzz around our offseason is more than heating up. With massive cap space, 4 draft picks, and free agency rapidly approaching, we sit in the best position in the NBA. Player interest is skyrocketing as the possibilities of landing Chris Paul & Dwight Howard become more and more of a reality.”
That’s a massive no-no. As the AJC reminds, a Hawks co-owner, former Suns GM Steve Kerr and Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban have been fined thousands for rather innocuous statements about free agents ranging from Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who signed for a minimum deal soon after) to LeBron James (who did not).
If this report is correct, and we have no reason to doubt the AJC, it means the Hawks are literally selling tickets to fans with current members of other teams doing the heavy advertising lifting. This may not be as severe as having contact with Howard or Paul during their tenure with the Lakers or Clippers, but because fans are being involved and potentially misled, this leaves the Hawks (who declined comment to the Journal-Constitution) up for a whole batch of well-earned scrutiny.
Scrutiny that Ferry, sadly, probably doesn’t deserve. He’s been more than careful in his planning, and did fantastic work in both ridding the Hawks of onerous contracts last summer while still managing to field a competitive playoff participant in 2012-13. His deliberate and inspired work was a long time coming: Ferry had a frustrating turn with free agent cash back in 2005, choosing to surround then-Cavalier LeBron James with free agents like Larry Hughes and Donyell Marshall. Those moves were applauded by all at the time, yet they still turned out to be stinkers.
Now, weeks before he can even legally reach out to Howard and Paul’s representatives, Ferry is going to have to answer to the league, reportedly because his team’s promotional department wildly overstepped its bounds.
The NBA doesn’t mind traveling, but it abhors boundary overstepping. This probably will not end well for the Atlanta Hawks.