Speaking at the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting earlier this month, commissioner Adam Silver expressed concern about the conduct some of the league’s teams showed during the early phase of free agency.
Silver isn’t unhappy about the extensive movement or the rich contracts the players have received. What bothers him is the seeming disregard for what best could be described as a gentlemen’s agreement concerning when teams could begin courting free agents.
“I think they’re (teams) put in difficult situations, because when they’re sitting across from a player and whether it’s conversations that are happening earlier than they should or frankly things are being discussed that don’t fall squarely within the collective bargaining agreement, it puts teams in a very difficult position,” said Silver. “They are reading or hearing that other teams are doing other things to compete, and at the end of the day, that’s what this league is about: competing for championships.
“I don’t necessarily see it as player versus owner, When we step back, what’s best for the fan? I think what’s best for the fan is a 30-team league which everyone has the opportunity to compete with a fair set of rules. I think to the extent that the balance of power is out of whack a little bit, we should address it.”
Look at it this way: What would a horse race look like if two or three of the jockeys figured out how to break from the gate earlier than the competition?
It’s clear from the timing of the announcement of free agent signings like Kemba Walker (Boston), Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (Brooklyn) that the teams engaged in substantive conservations with the agents and players long before the agreed upon June 30 date.
Now the NBA is ready to act. ESPN tells us the league has launched an investigation into how free agency was handled this season. The league has apparently heard from owners and agents upset with the head start some teams took in negotiating packages.
As you might suspect, the NBA plans to focus on teams like the Nets and Celtics, who obviously circumvented rules designed to prevent teams from having an unfair advantage over the others.
Teams were not allowed to even talk to free agents before June 30 and the NBA was shocked when they announced their signings so quickly after the date. Many news agencies were reporting the Walker, Irving and Durant signings long before the process was even scheduled to begin.
The NBA has rules about tampering with potential free agents and players under contract and some of the owners apparently believe launching contract negotiations prior to the start date constitutes a violation. The league has the option to penalize teams who stray with the loss of draft picks, fines or the voiding of the contracts in question.
Consider that well over a billion dollars in new deals were signed within the first 24 hours after free agency began. You’d have to be pretty naïve to believe contracts so complex could have been ironed out within hours. Many teams purposely jumped the gun thereby creating a competitive advantage for themselves.
The problem for the NBA is unearthing evidence that shows beyond doubt that players conspired with each other in the effort to play together, like Irving and Durant and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
In the case of Leonard-George and Anthony Davis-Lebron James with the Lakers, the assumption is they worked together to force Oklahoma City (George) and New Orleans (Davis) into trades by applying pressure on those organizations.
While it’s not expected to result in any discipline, the NBA’s investigation might eventually lead to stricter rules for future free agent classes.
But even the league begins to look into things, NBA coaches, like Golden State’s Steve Kerr, are expressing disappointment about a system which allows players like Davis to apply pressure on their teams to trade them. You’ll recall how vocal he was about wanting to be traded to the Lakers where he could play with James.
On Wednesday, Kerr called incidents like the Davis-James and Leonard-George collaborations a real problem in an interview with The Warriors Insider Podcast.
“I’m talking more about the Anthony Davis situation, where a guy is perfectly healthy and has a couple years left on his deal and says, ‘I want to leave.’ That’s a real problem that the league has to address and that the players have to be careful with,” said Kerr.
“When you sign on that dotted line, you owe your effort and your play to that team, to that city, to the fans. 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.
“If you come to an agreement with the team that, ‘Hey, it’s probably best for us to part ways,’ that’s one thing. But the Davis stuff was really kind of groundbreaking – and hopefully not a trend, because it’s bad for the league.”
In a press conference at the Las Vegas Summer League earlier this month, Silver pressed for the sanctity of contracts, stressing they should be mutually beneficial and binding and not used as a weapon to force a team into a trade.
When Davis told the Pelicans he wanted to leave, he still had one year remaining on his deal before becoming a free agent in 2020. At that point, the Pelicans had to decide whether to keep Davis and hope he continued to play with effort or trade him in fear of losing him for nothing in free agency.
“You have a contract and it needs to be meaningful on both sides,” said Silver. “On one hand, there’s an expectation if you have a contract and it’s guaranteed that the team is going to meet the terms of the contract, and the expectation on the other side is the player is going to meet the terms of the contract.”
“I will say, without getting into any specific circumstances, trade demands are disheartening. They’re disheartening to the team. They’re disheartening to the community and don’t serve the player well. The players care about their reputations just as much. And so that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”