As well as the league’s willingness to investigate its own free agency rules, the other interesting tidbit to come out of the ESPN story released by Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe yesterday is their acknowledgement of ‘vague reports in the local Toronto media’ concerning Kawhi Leonard’s uncle (and effectively player agent) Dennis Robertson requesting ‘benefits outside the scope of the collective bargaining agreement’ from the Raptors during Leonard’s free-agency negotiations.
This is a rumour which has been floating around in the pop-culture ether this week since Stephen A. Smith ‘reported’ (in the loosest sense of the word) on ESPN that Robertson had been after ‘houses, planes, sponsorship, guaranteed sponsorship money’ and other things outside the scope of legal contract items per the terms of the CBA.
Of course, (as he rarely is) Smith was not the first to break this story. Way back on July 10th (over two weeks ago now) Canadian broadcaster TSN published an article from Josh Lewenberg, which reported the following:
Robertson has a reputation for being hard to deal with and would have been hands on throughout the process. According to sources, Leonard and his camp – namely Uncle Dennis – asked for a lot from the Raptors in that meeting, things players don’t generally ask for in standard contract negotiations
In some cases, they were asking for things that [Masai] Ujiri – one of the most well-compensated executives in the league – wouldn’t have even had at his disposal. Their requests were “unreasonable”, a source said, which made the Raptors wonder whether Leonard was seriously considering them at all.
The implication is clearly that if Robertson was denied these inducements by the Raptors, and then decided to sign with the Clippers, something shady happened to get the deal across the line in L.A.
The NBA is clearly now taking these allegations seriously. The New York Times’ Sopan Deb reported yesterday that:
The N.B.A. has begun an investigation into how teams handled free agency this summer, focusing on whether improper inducements were offered to players to circumvent the salary cap, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.
This indicates a subtle shift in focus from the NBA; from looking in to its own processes (as was implied by the Lowe/Windhorst story) to investigating the actions of others. Inescapably that investigation will fall on Kawhi, Uncle Dennis & the Clippers.
What CAN the NBA Do?
The short answer is a lot.
The NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement is an outrageously complex document. Basically, though, anything not expressly allowed by the CBA is dis-allowed. Article 13.1 (a) of the CBA also creates a general prohibition of “circumvention”; which mandates essentially that no party shall do anything to defeat or circumvent the intent of the CBA.
Larry Coon’s highly-regarded tome on the inner-workings of the CBA provides the following examples of conduct considered circumvention by the league:
- A team owner allowing a player to invest in a business or investment fund controlled by the owner or a friend of the owner.
- A team executive assisting a player in obtaining a product endorsement.
- Any “under the table” promises for a future contract
- A team’s arena renting retail space to a player on the team.
- A team selling a sponsorship to a business in which a player has an interest.
- A team hiring a player’s relative or business partner as an employee.
- A team owner allowing a player the use of his private plane.
- A company affiliated with a team’s owner making a home available to one of the team’s players
The provision of houses, planes, sponsorship etc. outside Leonard’s contract with the Clippers – if proven – undoubtedly falls within the definition of circumvention. That’s inarguable.
As per Article 13.3, a first-time breach of the CBA carries with it the possibility of a maximum fine of $3,000,000; the forfeiture of one First Round Draft Pick and the voiding of any player contract found to be in contravention.
Back in 2015, though, the very-same Clippers were fined $250,000 by the NBA after, as part of free-agent negotiations with DeAndre Jordan, they reportedly offered him sponsorship opportunities with Lexus on top of his salary.
The league found that the Clippers had violated section 1(b) of Article 13 of the CBA, which states:
It shall constitute a violation of [the circumvention rules] for a Team (or Team Affiliate) to enter into an agreement or understanding with any sponsor or business partner or third-party under which such sponsor, business partner or third-party pays or agrees to pay compensation for basketball services (even if such compensation is ostensibly designated as being for non-basketball services) to a player under Contract to the Team.
Any circumvention discovered by the league in this case would thus be – for all intents and purposes – a second offence against Article 13.1 (a) of the CBA. Not only does that carry a heftier maximum fine ($6,000,000), it should also mean the league would be more likely to a) also penalise a draft pick; and b) consider voiding Leonard’s contract.
What WILL the NBA do?
The likeliest outcome from here is… Nothing.
Unless Adam Silver can find direct evidence financially linking Robertson to the Clippers (unlikely) and/or someone in the Raptors’ inner-sanctum wants to go on the record with Robertson’s demands (even unlikelier given the bridges that would burn) there’s almost no way anything can be satisfactorily proven. It’s hardly as if the Clippers are going to fess up.
In any case, just imagine the anarchy which would ensue if Adam Silver tried to announce he was voiding Leonard’s Clippers contract. A worst-case scenario (assuming everything is proven) is a hefty fine and loss of a draft-pick (do the Clippers even have any left?).
There’s also the small matter of the can of worms such an investigation would open up. At this point it’s as good as an open secret that Anthony Davis waived his $4,000,000 trade kicker with the Lakers (allowing them more cap space to chase Kawhi, ironically) in exchange for a role in LeBron’s Space Jam 2 production.
Again, though, the league won’t be able to prove a thing. Why would they? The lax nature of the NBA’s rule enforcement has resulted in a free-for-all environment, with players and teams buying, selling and trading at a rate we’ve never seen before.
All that player movement results in more mouths talking about the NBA, more teams with a chance to win the title, more players having control over their career-directions and more money in the bulging coffers of the sport.
It’s a win-win-win. Unless you’re the New Orleans Pelicans or Toronto Raptors.