When the NBA’s Board of Governors convened earlier this month in Las Vegas, the owners’ heads were spinning from a league-shaking flurry of deals that reshaped their realities in a matter of days.
The powerful men and women, some through clenched teeth and others with open arms, asked themselves two basic but important questions: What the hell just happened, and what should we do about it?
What followed was a potentially pivotal discussion that exposed fears, examined inner workings and authored fixes aimed at trying to level an offseason playing field that’s gone full tilt.
Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.
The league has the power to punish teams it finds to be guilty of tampering ahead of June 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time — the first minute that teams are allowed to speak with representatives of free agents. It also might seek information on the timing of negotiations so that any revised free-agency calendar might better align with what is actually happening.
The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, speaking as the head of the labor committee, discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement, sources said.
Marc Lasry, co-owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, spoke of his concern of the gray areas of tampering rules; it was lost on no one in the room that Milwaukee’s franchise player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, could be the most sought-after star in free agency in 2021 if he does not sign an extension before then. Other owners expressed frustration that some deals had apparently been agreed to well before the official start of free agency.
Commissioner Adam Silver encouraged the open airing of grievances in Las Vegas, sources said, when it became clear during the two-day meeting at the Wynn Hotel that frustrations were simmering below the surface. There have been more intense sessions over the years — hashing out revenue-sharing rules earlier this decade is remembered as one of the spiciest — but this was not a routine summer agenda.
In the midst of it, Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s longtime general counsel, issued an evenhanded but sobering message to the room, multiple sources said.
Buchanan told the governors that as partners they were entitled to expect all teams to abide by a common set of enforceable rules for free agency — and that the league office would come back with a proposal for a revised set of rules that would then be strictly enforced. He asked the group if they were comfortable with the league “seizing servers and cellphones,” a line that stuck with many in attendance, according to sources who recounted the scene later.
Buchanan’s tone was not threatening, or aggressive, sources say. He appeared to be offering guidance: This is what strict enforcement might look like.
In the past, when the NBA has cracked down on deals that fell outside of the league’s rules — Juwan Howard’s voided contract with the Miami Heat in 1996 and Joe Smith‘s under-the-table agreement with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1999 were referenced in the room — it was as a result of limited-scope investigations.
That was then, and this could be now. With star players of immense value moving liberally from team to team, the circumstances around those moves have never been more important.
Among the specific issues discussed during the Las Vegas meetings and since:
• The possibility of allowing teams to talk to free agents and their representatives immediately after the end of the Finals or a few days later, even if there is still some moratorium on striking official deals until some set time after the draft.
Team executives and agents report that free agency now unofficially begins at the draft combine in May, when those days of meetings with agents over draft picks often expand to their coming free-agent clients, despite the rules.
So if some teams are talking to players days or weeks before June 30, then just let everyone do that openly, the thinking goes. Of course, some teams might then be tempted to start even earlier than the end of the Finals.
Brian Windhorst explains how Kevin Durant had leverage over the Warriors in a sign and trade, forcing them to send a 1st-round pick to the Nets.
• A more extreme version of this same general change: conduct free agency, signings and all, before the NBA draft. But this change, while practical, may not be in the immediate offing.
The Houston Rockets formally proposed this change last year. When the league polled the 30 teams on Houston’s proposal this month, only 10 supported it, though several responded that they did not care either way, sources familiar with the poll results say.
• Failing more extreme change, there is support among lots of teams for reducing the current moratorium on official signings — which extends from June 30 through July 6. The primary obstacle to any shortening of the moratorium has been the league’s need to account for all the income from the previous fiscal year — including the full Finals — and accurately set the salary cap for the next season.
• If players can continue to recruit each other freely and at all times, the general sense was that teams should have more time and methods of communicating with impending free agents.
The league’s constitution grants Silver the authority to fine and suspend any player who “induces, persuades, or attempts to entice” any player under contract with another team “to enter into negotiations for his services” — i.e., player-to-player tampering. The league has essentially punted on enforcing those rules. Some league and team officials find the prospect of such enforcement almost an invasion of privacy. LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be able to get dinner and talk shop. Draymond Green has admitted to contacting Kevin Durant while Durant was still technically a member of the Thunder. Monitoring such talk is impractical to the point of being impossible. Cracking down on it raises a ton of uncomfortable questions.
Governors in Las Vegas (and since) discussed ways to close the communication gap. Perhaps teams should be more free to talk earlier to their own impending free agents, and their representatives, without cloaking such discussion under the guise of negotiating an extension to the player’s current contract. One issue there: The same agent might represent that player and other players on other teams set to hit unrestricted free agency. Discussions of the first might naturally lead to informal chitchat about the second. Can the league really expect teams and agents to silo such discussions? Does it want to be in the business of monitoring chatter to make sure they do?
Perhaps general managers should be able to talk to upcoming free agents from rival teams (and their representatives) once those teams’ seasons end — at the end of the regular season, or whenever the free agent’s team is eliminated from the playoffs.
That could disadvantage teams that advance to the conference finals and Finals — and are preoccupied with things other than free agency. Two of this summer’s biggest free agents, Kawhi Leonard and Durant, played in the Finals.
Some such talk surely happens now, including all that intel gathering at the draft combine. Some teams are more wary than others of engaging in it. No one — or at least almost no one — wants to live in a world where teams can freely recruit superstars on expiring contracts (through their representatives) all season. That is pernicious. It can ruin teams. But teams are searching for wiggle room.
• It isn’t just teams complaining, by the way. Even powerful agents have registered concerns about the timing of free agency to both the players’ union and league office, per several sources. Agents and players benefit from a known and concrete starting point to free agency, too. If some deals are done early, that means cap room vanishes before those acting at the agreed-upon kickoff time even initiate talks.
• One item discussed openly and explicitly: frustration that family members of players were almost acting as agents and asking for benefits outside the scope of the collective bargaining agreement. Vague reports in the local Toronto media that Leonard’s uncle and adviser, Dennis Robertson, asked for such benefits clearly sparked the discussion, but it was pointed out that he would not have been the first family member to do so — and would not be the last.
Silver appeared to reference this in his remarks to the media after the meeting when he mentioned that “frankly, things are being discussed that don’t fall squarely within the collective bargaining agreement.”
Some suggested that any family member acting as a player’s de facto representative should have to pass through the union’s certification process for player agents, sources said.
Buchanan, sources say, distinguished any situation in which a team were to circumvent the salary cap to provide star players with extra benefits: The league would use all investigative tools at its disposal and use its immense power to punish any team caught doing that. He reminded the governors of this, even though there are no credible allegations of circumvention at this time, sources say.
• There was confusion about the tendency for players to turn down the extra year(s) and connected salary that incumbent teams can offer.
In any case, it’s important to remember the league is just coming down from a period of intense activity and drama. Teams and league officials are still grappling with it. For many of them, the emotions are raw. The end result may be a minor change to the calendar, phased in down the line, or no change at all.
But the events of the first week of July have stakeholders across the league discussing the underpinnings of how the NBA does business with a new urgency.