NBA Clampdown on Tampering Compliance Rules Is a Step Forward—If They're Enforced

Chris Mannix
Sports Illustrated

On Friday, Adam Silver stood behind a podium in New York and put NBA teams on notice. Tampering, an issue the league has effectively shrugged off until now, will be investigated and met with severe penalties. Fines will be increased. Suspending executives, taking draft picks and voiding contracts are all on the table.

The NBA will no longer turn a blind eye to tampering, the commish said.

OK … good luck.

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Credit Silver with doing something. NBA free agency had become a joke. Consider the most recent round. Officially, teams were allowed to start speaking to free agents at 6 p.m. on June 30th. Yet, amazingly, minutes into the free agent moratorium, dozens of deals—including those of some notable names—were done. The brazenness of tampering, which has been going on for years, stirred something in NBA owners, who urged Silver to take action.

“I think there was a long, involved discussion about what the appropriate tension is that's necessary to ensure compliance, and that means there needs to be consequences when rules are violated,” Silver said. “I'd say that a lot of what we talked about is work we've done over the summer to learn best practices when it comes to compliance. That includes random aspects of audits. It includes record keeping on behalf of our teams. It requires appropriate processes in place to ensure compliance. It includes ensuring that there is a culture, as I said, of compliance at the teams. And that includes certification. That means that the governors of the teams, that the heads of basketball operations, have to be certified that they are complying with our rules.”

Silver continued: “There's not much more I can share with you at this point, and not because I'm withholding information from you. We listened to our teams. We heard their concerns. We said we would go back and, in essence, come up with a framework in which we would discuss with our teams before we implemented it and recognize the balance, again, of their privacy concerns with our need to ensure compliance. At some point there will be more information available, but the league has additional work to do in that area before we, in essence, promulgate the specific rules around compliance.”

Got that? In reality, the league didn’t offer sweeping change. The NBA was already armed with most of these tools. In 2000, the league busted the Timberwolves for cutting a backroom deal with Joe Smith, where Smith would sign a series of short, cap-friendly deals and be rewarded with a rich one at the end of it. The NBA fined Minnesota $3.5 million, docked them four first round picks and suspended owner Glen Taylor, with GM Kevin McHale officially taking a leave of absence.

Said McHale at the time of the punishment: “There are eight to 10 teams that do this all the time. They're just good at it. We're bad.”

Indeed. Like raptors testing a fence, teams will continue to seek a competitive edge. The NBA did beef up the financial penalties: $10 million for a tampering violation (up from $5 million) and up to $6 million for unauthorized agreements, per source. And the league announced it would randomly audit five teams’ communications with rival front offices and agents. Silver says he doesn’t want to confiscate devices—another tool the league already had at its disposal—but stopped short of saying he wouldn’t.

Said Silver: “That is not something certainly in the first instance we would be looking to do. I think we can create the appropriate culture without certainly on a random basis people feeling that that's something that is necessary. We have lots of other tools available to us.”

Still: Don’t expect Friday's events to have a measurable impact. The NBA’s actions were met with a collective shrug. “If you use [encrypted apps] to communicate, there are no records,” said a longtime league exec. “The people they catch are the people who make stupid comments.” Added another, “Let’s see if they catch someone. Until then, teams will keep pushing the envelope. They didn’t enforce the old rules—why would anyone think they will do more with new ones?”

It’s true. The NBA will need to catch—and punish—a team before its rules truly take hold. And they have to go after draft picks. Fines, even eight-figure ones, are (relatively) meaningless to teams. Draft picks? That’s going after the future. Teams will think twice about tampering if its draft capital is at risk.

Besides: The most effective way to combat tampering is something Silver can’t unilaterally do. The NBA calendar needs fixing. Free agency should precede the draft. If Summer League is bumped back a week, big deal. Some execs see more value in team-held minicamps and Tim Grgurich’s summer camp anyway. Holding free agency prior to the draft would create roster clarity before important picks. It would also cut down the time between the end of the season and free agency, theoretically giving teams less time to cut backroom deals.

Changing the league calendar requires Players Association approval. And it’s something Silver says “is still on the table.”

“The provisions we talked about today are all either already part of the collective bargaining agreement and we were announcing our intention with our teams as to how we'll enforce that rule, or again, were things that were already within our purview. There is a whole other bucket of issues that would need to be collectively bargained with the Players Association. We've had some informal discussions with the Players Association as to their view, for example, on whether it would make sense to move the beginning of free agency. Again, I think there is a mutuality of interest between us and the players in operating a level playing field, and so my sense is those conversations will continue. I don't have any expectation that anything is going to happen in the near term, but those are all going to be on our list.”

The NBA’s public admission that its free agency has become goofy is commendable. It’s a step some executives have been waiting for Silver to make. But players will still communicate with players; a form of tampering the NBA has been clear it will not police. And until real punishments are meted out, small market team officials will continue to view tampering as an existential threat.

It’s a step in the right direction.

If it has any teeth.

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