Earlier today it was reported by ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst that, after a tense board of governors meeting in Las Vegas earlier in July, the NBA would begin looking in to the free agency process amid allegations of rampant tampering.
All things considered, this is not a surprise. The way deals broke at 6pm on the dot on the day of free agency opening would indicate to all but the extremely naive that back-room negotiations had been taking place between players, teams and/or their representatives well before the NBA mandated window officially opened on June 30th.
For example, if you believe the reports, Kemba Walker had told Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets as early as June 27th that he would not be returning to Charlotte. Woj jumped in on the action, declaring Boston a “front-runner” to sign Walker a full three days before free agency supposedly opened.
Consequently, at 6pm on the dot on June 30th the news broke that Walker would become a Celtic. Unless you believe Danny Ainge and Walker’s management somehow hashed out a four-year $160 million deal in less than 60 seconds, something was clearly awry with how the process played out.
Despite ostensibly turning a blind eye to such activity in recent years, the NBA is a proud league and cannot afford to give the impression it is being run rough-shod over by (in effect) its constituents.
Free agency these days is a 365 day a year discussion among the fans and media, and it seems this obsession with player movement is leading to similarly speculative attitudes being taken by owners and player agents. Reportedly, the backroom free agency period now begins in May at the draft combine, where, logically, as teams talk to agents about their rookie clients, the topics of discussion invariably stray to their more high-profile employers.
Understandably this is leading to some angst amongst the league’s administrators as the rules of the CBA are being flaunted willy-nilly, but its also concerning to the owners of the 30 teams. “To what extent can I cheat without being caught” is not a question most are willing to ask, but without doing so teams risk being left in the dust; weeks or even months in negotiations behind the more adventurous franchises.
The NBA clearly has a problem. That problem is so widespread and ubiquitous in the media that they can no longer afford to ignore it. The free agency process is not working.
Why Does it Even Matter?
The obvious response to all this kerfuffle is “stuff it, it’s not hurting anyone, let the boys play”.
That attitude, though, fails to take in to account the nuances of doing business in the modern-day NBA. The current state of flux with the NBA’s ‘rules’ (really more guidelines at this point) is actually of significant detriment to teams and players alike. Sport (and society in general) relies on laws and rules for a reason.
In an alternate universe let’s say the Boston Celtics, fully aware (as was the entire league) that Kyrie Irving wouldn’t be returning in 2019-20, decided to abide by NBA policy and wait until 6pm on June 30th before beginning discussions with free agents.
In the current environment you can rest assured Kemba Walker would’ve already talked to a plethora of teams by this point, and likely made the decision to sign elsewhere. The Celtics are then left in the impossible position of knowing their star point-guard is leaving but, thanks to following the rules as they are set out, are also deprived of the opportunity to sign an All-Star calibre replacement.
Of course this is not an alternate universe, and with Danny Ainge at the helm you can rest assured the Celtics are leading the pack in terms of bending the rules.
The point, though, stands. We’ve officially reached the point in basketball where teams who behave as the league intended (if there in fact are any of those teams remaining) are at a significant disadvantage.
The same goes for individual players. Stars and their agents who wait until the appropriate time to talk to teams run the risk that the cap space needed to sign them will have already dried up in deals promised elsewhere by the time they meet.
So, What Will the NBA Do?
Rest assured that they won’t be doing nothing. Adam Silver made that abundantly clear in the media post-Vegas meeting.
The solution is far from an obvious one, though. The most-popular suggestion seems to be to simply push the start of free agency back so it begins at the end of the NBA Finals.
Of course, the cynics would say that that would only result in the ‘unofficial’ start of free agency merely starting a month earlier than it currently does as well. But, it does make more sense for the period to start as the season ends, and perhaps a more rational starting point would result in more sensible behaviour from all parties involved.
A more practical suggestion would be to legalise free-agency discussions between teams and out-of-contract players as soon as those players’ seasons finish; i.e. the end of the regular season or whenever their team loses in the playoffs.
This proposition works on a number of levels. Firstly, it makes practical sense that a player whose contract has, for all intents and purposes, finished (because their season has come to a close) is allowed to begin negotiating a new contract.
Secondly, the NBA has made abundantly clear its commitment to league-wide equalisation. Allowing teams out of contention the advantage of beginning to construct their upcoming rosters weeks or even months before the playoff teams can properly turn their attention to it in any meaningful way is surely attractive to Silver.
Thirdly, it actively discourages teams from trying to circumvent the rules by force of pure practicality. Imagine the response of, say, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard if representatives from other franchises had tried to start free agency negotiations with them or their management during the NBA Finals. Such an approach is unlikely to bode well with the players.
Keep your eyes peeled in the coming month. Free agency in its current form is unsustainable, and Adam Silver and the NBA must find a way to fix it.