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Adam Silver and the NBA Have a Tampering Problem

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The Pacers’ complaints about Magic Johnson and the Lakers allegedly tampering with Paul George are just a symptom of a bigger problem for the league.

NBA: All Star Game-Commissioner Press Conference Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NBA fans are living in the age of the superteam. As such, it’s commonplace to hear reports of star players lobbying other All-Stars to join forces to compete in the increasingly competitive upper echelon of the NBA.

Just in the last month, Portland Trail Blazers stalwarts Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have reportedly been trying to convince disgruntled Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony to consider waiving his no-trade clause and facilitating a trade to Portland.

Most people, myself included, were happy to see the two faces of the franchise openly lobby to improve the team. Portland, despite making the playoffs for four straight seasons, still has a ways to go in order to seriously be considered any type of contender. Lillard and McCollum recognize that adding Anthony might be enough to push the Blazers into that elite upper tier.

After all, direct recruitment is how teams get better in this new era —LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were rumored to have worked out an agreement well in advance of their teaming up in 2010 and Adrian Wojnarowski mentioned last year that the Warriors were recruiting Durant all season long:

"Here's the thing that's interesting about Golden State -- their players have been recruiting Kevin Durant all year. And it goes back to early in the season when the Thunder were struggling. And I don't know if Golden State saw them as a peer; I don't know that they saw them as a threat ... Kevin Durant, just like he was hearing from guys in Boston, Washington, different places -- he was hearing from guys on the Warriors about, 'Hey, you can come help take the pressure off of Steph Curry. We need you.' This is when they were running off win after win after win.

"They had him on their mind. He's been on their mind. And it appealed to him. And some of it was text messages, it's a lot of that. But the communication with some of the players in Golden State and Kevin, that's just not just starting now."

But is this really okay? If we take a look at the NBA Constitution, which governs player misconduct, section (e) clearly states that players recruiting players under contract with other teams is impermissible:

any player who, directly or indirectly, attempts to entice, induce, or persuade any other player then under contract to enter into negotiations with another team shall be suspended and/or fined by the Commissioner up to $50,000.

It’s easy to argue semantics here. “Can you define what speech constitutes inducement?” “I wasn’t going to enter into negotiations; my agent was.” But the spirit of the rule is clear: Players should not be making these sorts of overtures to other players while they are under contract.

To be fair, tampering itself isn’t a new problem. In 1995, the Knicks filed charges against the Miami Heat in their recruitment of head coach Pat Riley and the league fined three teams for tampering four years ago.

But those were team-level offenses. The big difference now is that many of the players are friends, and with communication technology being widely available it’s trivial to text, email, snap, or Face Time another player at a moment’s notice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what amounts to co-workers getting along and fraternizing outside of work, but the line has seemingly been crossed so many times that people are starting to suggest that something needs to be done.

The way I see it, commissioner Adam Silver has three choices;

  • Enforce the tampering rules as defined in the NBA’s constitution and collective bargaining agreement
  • Modify the agreement, when permissible, to clarify proper player to player contact
  • Do nothing

The problem is that none of these solutions is perfect. Should the league crackdown on alleged player tampering? If you do that, you’ll get to make one high-profile example out of someone before the players learn to keep quiet. Is the league really going to expend the resources to go after text records and witnesses, all in the name of eliminating one of their biggest sources of offseason fan intrigue? That doesn’t seem likely.

Should they amend the tampering clause to permit more player to player conversations? We would at least be free of the farce that is the current situation, but at that point I wouldn’t be surprised to see everything ramp up five-fold. I wouldn’t expect to see the millions of small-market fans willing to stay invested in the game, when LeBron James or Steph Curry starts openly lobbying through the media for young players to abandon their current small-market teams. Doing so goes against the spirit of the new CBA rules that can keep a player locked in with their original team for the first nine years of their career.

The most obvious answer is to do nothing, and wield the power of a fine and/or suspension when the alleged violation is too egregious to ignore. But who gets to make that call? The NFL has had a lot of problems over the last several years with commissioner Roger Goodell making what appeared to many fans to be arbitrary disciplinary decisions. The NBA absolutely wants to avoid that PR disaster at all costs.

I’m curious to see how yesterday’s news that the Indiana Pacers have filed tampering charges against the Los Angeles Lakers shakes out. Because in order for anything to happen, a team needs to file a grievance, something that doesn’t happen that often. Which makes sense — if everyone is doing it, do you really want to limit your team’s/players’ ability to have those conversations by being the first one to complain?

That’s probably a bullseye that most GM’s don’t want on their back. If things got petty enough, you could even see players’ former teams questioning free agent agreements that happen in the first minutes of free agency; deals that happen every single summer.

There’s no easy answer here for the NBA. Ignoring the issue, as they’re currently doing, only serves to kick the can down the road. And since they’re currently ignoring the issue, it makes all the sense in the world for Lillard and McCollum to get in on the action. They’d be foolish not to try to recruit some serious firepower as they try to move into the upper half of the Western Conference.

But eventually, as things currently stand, someone is going to go too far in the league’s eyes, and then the question about why the NBA is selectively enforcing their own rules is going to really rear its head.