Player tampering in the NBA is only really an issue during the season. In the offseason, it should really be a tampering free-for-all as players look to team up with friends and teams seek maximum value on the market for players they have and players they want.
Issues arise primarily when players like Anthony Davis make in-season trade requests before the February trade deadline. That gets awful messy and impacts the action on the court, as witnessed by havoc wreaked upon the Lakers and Pelicans this past season.
The problem is that the season goes deep into June, and the NBA Draft and free agency follow the end of the NBA Finals within weeks. You can have a clear separation of in-season and off-season norms and rules without a legitimate gap there. But you also need to allocate rookies and allow free agency to bloom with plenty of time for people to take a summer break, play summer ball in Vegas, hold their kids’ camps, participate in FIBA play, ride banana boats, get married, and fix their jump shots.
The problem can be solved by reordering the summer and making clear to teams that tampering rules won’t be enforced from the end of the Finals through opening night of the following NBA season. This will eliminate the seedy appearance of having all these free agent deals lined up on June 28. Teams still won’t be able to announce anything until the moratorium ends a few days into July, but they can legally do what they are already illegally doing, which is reaching agreements in principle and plotting their team.
The need to reorder the NBA offseason isn’t an original idea: pretty much every writer or analyst who spends time thinking about the league has pitched it at some point. I laid out my proposed timeline two years back. It goes like this.
Mid-April: regular season ends, playoffs begin
End of April: NBA Draft lottery
Mid-May: NBA Draft combine
Mid-June: NBA Finals end
The next day: NBA offseason officially begins, tampering rules lifted
June 30: Official salary cap is set
July 6: Moratorium ends, teams can announce free agency deals
End of July: NBA Draft
Mid-August: Summer League
Mid-September: Training camp opens
October 1: Preseason begins
Mid-October: Regular season opens, tampering rules back in place
Will teams still try to talk to impending free agents in May and early June? Yes. The league, if it wants to keep tampering rules on the books, should enforce that strongly. How? Well, a good hint is if, say, a deal between the Celtics and Kemba Walker leaks within a couple of hours of the end of NBA Finals, the league knows who to investigate!
The NBA can also rely on complaints from the teams which believe they have been impacted. Because the penalties are fines and not draft pick revocation or contract voiding, there’s no urgency on the investigation. If it takes until November for the NBA to find that the Clippers tampered with Paul George, then so be it. Steve Ballmer can cut the
tax write-off check then.
There are questions the NBA really needs to resolve internally about what types of tampering it’s willing to allow. The line on player-to-player tampering has been that it’s totally unenforceable — you can’t monitor player conversations. But the same pretty much applies to team-to-agent tampering, because agents have multiple clients and there’s always going to be plausible deniability, even with phone records in play.
What can the Pelicans prove with evidence that the Lakers talked to Rich Paul, who is the agent to not just Anthony Davis, but LeBron James and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? And even if Paul didn’t have Lakers clients, as long as he has one client unsigned, in the G League, or playing outside the NBA, there’s plausible deniability that he talked to the Lakers about Davis. (Unless the communication is via text, of course.)
Because the NBA is unable, or unwilling, to regulate those two core flavors of tampering, its left with enforcing only team-to-player tampering. That basically means team governors or executives mentioning another team’s player by name in public, or otherwise being so flagrant in their tampering that the league has no choice but to slap the team with a fine (hi, Earvin).
That’s why it’s so weird that the early dealmaking in June is being lumped in with the broader tampering discussion in the discourse. It’s sort of the same! The Celtics and Nets should get every bit the scrutiny the Lakers have under the current rules. Boston worked out a deal with Kemba Walker that was reported out fully and accurately before the Celtics were allowed to talk to Walker, who was still under the employ of the Charlotte Hornets. That is tampering, per the rules. There’s rather decent proof that it happened. Wojbombs are evidence, especially when they turn out to be accurate (as they are 99 percent of the time).
But that shouldn’t be tampering. The NBA should fix its offseason schedule so the whole rush to ink deals isn’t a part of this conversation, and so tampering rules are focused on the truly nefarious bits of team management (like surreptitiously trying to poach Giannis Antetokounmpo two years before his contract is up). This is a crisis with an easy fix: just make what everyone is doing anyway legal, and make it logical by moving the draft later into the summer.