NBA investigates a lot, catches very little

Beyond the ordinary warnings that come on the trade call and with league memos, the NBA delivered a deeper admonition to the Cleveland Cavaliers: We’re watching on Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes), watching everything and don’t let us find a hint of evidence that a prearranged deal has been set up for his return once he gets his buyout with the Washington Wizards.

NBA officials ought to confess to an irrefutable truth: Unless teams are completely careless and foolish – Jerry Stackhouse(notes) declared he was taking a 30-day vacation and returning to Dallas before he'd even been traded – the league is powerless, if not unmotivated, to police itself.

NBA officials can’t catch teams. Truth be told, they don’t want to catch teams. This is a league full of side deals. Do you think teams clearing cap space aren’t working on potential deals with players? You’re kidding yourself. The phone calls come and go every day.

“No emails,” one agent said. “Never put anything in an email.”

There’s the NBA general manager who called an agent every week a season ago, trying to convince the rep to push his unhappy star to force a trade to his team. Discussions between executives and agents about the free-agent class of 2010 – even 2011 – are well under discussion. Yes, it’s called tampering, and it’s called about as often as the carry.

No one gets caught and no one gets punished. The NBA is the ultimate “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” league. It’s always investigating something, and always giving everyone a pass. To get caught, it takes a complete idiot. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of improper discussions and, ultimately, deals that take place every month, every year. No one gets busted because the league is mostly interested that everyone just stays discreet.

“The only way you’re going to screw this up,” one NBA GM said, “is if you get cute and have to tell everyone how smart you are.”

Only one organization has ever been caught in the past decade with a secret deal. Glen Taylor, the Minnesota Timberwolves owner, cut an $86 million under-the-table contract with Joe Smith(notes). He made the mistake of committing to it in writing. David Stern called it “fraud of major proportion … fraud that ripped to the heart of the [CBA] compact. The magnitude of this stuff is shocking.”

After Taylor lost some draft picks and $3.5 million in fines, do you know what the NBA did with him?

Elected him chairman of the board of governors.


This is the backdrop of the Ilgauskas story. The Cavs traded him with a first-round draft pick to Washington for Antawn Jamison(notes) at the trade deadline, and rest assured: They never, ever doubted for a moment they were losing him. Almost no one believes Cleveland would’ve made that trade had it truly believed Ilgauskas was gone for good.

Does it mean this was a prearranged deal?

Or just an assumption?

Whatever. It is what it is. Z is coming back to the Cavs, and there isn’t a soul in the NBA who believes differently.

Here’s the one political thing the Cavs have going for them: Cleveland executives have watched numerous officials, from Knicks executives to Nets minority owners, publicly tamper with LeBron James(notes) and never heard an admonishment from the league office. It feeds a conspiracy belief that David Stern wants James in New York. So how could the NBA get in the way of Ilgauskas now, without it looking like the league has an agenda to derail the Cavs’ title chase and, ultimately, their re-signing of James?

Also understand: As much as anyone ever, Ilgauskas has the cover story of circumstance. He’s Mr. Cavalier, maybe the most beloved player in franchise history – outside of No. 23. One year, he delayed contract negotiations so the organization could sign some teammates. He missed entire seasons with foot injuries, collecting millions without playing a minute. This season, Ilgauskas was finishing the final year of a $55 million contract that included the gifting of this final season at $11.5 million, especially generous considering the injuries that plagued him early in his career.

He married a Cleveland girl, adopted two young Eastern European children and will likely live the rest of his life in Ohio. After 13 years, do you think he’s going to walk away from the best team in Cavs history, from a chance to finally win a title, to chase a championship as a mercenary with perfect strangers in Atlanta and Dallas?

Nevertheless, everyone has to play along. The Cavs had to bid Ilgauskas an emotional farewell. Ilgauskas’ agent, Herb Rudoy, had to say his client is intrigued with the interest of those contenders. Washington has to pretend that, hey, maybe we won’t buy out his contract, maybe we don’t have to do it. The NBA isn’t as interested in the prearranged deal as they are with the appearance of it.

Ilgauskas has every reason to return to Cleveland, especially since the Cavs can pay him the prorated portion of their $2.1 million biannual exception. Just a year ago, this wasn’t the case with Antonio McDyess(notes). He went from Detroit to Denver in the Chauncey Billups(notes)-Allen Iverson trade and gave back $6 million to take a buyout with the Nuggets.

The NBA probed the teams, the way it always does. After the buyout, the Cavs and Celtics made bids for McDyess. He turned them down and returned to the Pistons. After that, a league source says, the NBA really watched free agency and whether the Pistons would overbid for McDyess. That way, the thought goes, they could’ve repaid him for “going along” with a plan.

Well, the Pistons didn’t do it. McDyess took the San Antonio Spurs’ offer, and the NBA had to move on. Mostly , the league is just wagging its finger, making threats it’ll never carry out.

Ilgauskas will get bought out soon, and he’ll be back in the Cavs’ lineup before March Madness is over. And in the end, the price of Antawn Jamison, perhaps the final chip to a championship, will be the 29th or 30th pick in the 2010 draft. That’s all. Business as usual in the Don’t-Ask, Don’t-Tell NBA.