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The NBA Is Shocked, Shocked To Find That Tampering Is Going On In Here

Photo: Gene Sweeney Jr. (Getty)

The NBA will reportedly open an investigation into the 2019 free agency period, based on the observation that roughly a zillion players changed teams this summer despite only Kawhi Leonard taking any meetings or doing any deliberating before making a move. The feeling seems to be that teams, players, and agents are not respecting the league calendar, and turned the official opening of 2019 free agency into a mere formality. According to a report from Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst, “concerns from owners” have prompted the league to look into this matter.

The scope of the investigation is still being determined, but sources say it will likely focus on some of the earliest reported deals on June 30 — the first day teams and representatives for free agents are technically allowed to speak. League officials are expected to begin scheduling interviews in the coming days as they seek to gather information, sources said. There is no timetable for its completion.

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The NBA’s fiscal year ends on June 30, which means a player on an expiring contract becomes a free agent after midnight on July 1. This summer the NBA moved back the start of free agency to 6 p.m. on June 30, to allow teams to begin courting free agents and negotiating new contracts, well, not in the middle of the night. This year in particular, perhaps because the whole circus kicked off in broad daylight, observers noticed just how many new deals were supposedly negotiated and agreed to in the first few seconds of the new league year. To absolutely no one’s surprise, it seems deals are being worked out behind the scenes ahead of the starting gun, while players are still under contract with other teams. Egads!

Consider the case of Terry Rozier. Rozier was unhappy backing up Kyrie Irving last season in Boston. It seemed likely that he would leave in free agency, especially if another team could offer him a starting job and a nice salary. No one was especially surprised, then, when The Athletic scoop-hound Shams Charania reported on June 30 that Rozier was planning to sign a three-year contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

This move was eventually completed via a sign-and-trade, but the timing of it tells an interesting little story. Charania tweeted Rozier’s move at 5:12 p.m. Sunday evening, 48 minutes before the official start of free agency—notably, the tweet also included reasonably accurate salary details. So some kind of negotiation had already taken place between Rozier and the Hornets, before teams are technically allowed to contact other team’s free agents. But there’s more: Rozier moved to the Hornets to take the starting point guard spot vacated by Kemba Walker, who was also a 2019 free agent; Walker left Charlotte to become the starting point guard in Boston; the starting point guard spot in Boston was available because Irving, also a 2019 free agent, had decided to join the Brooklyn Nets. Technically speaking none of these moves could even have been discussed prior to the opening of free agency on the 30th, but here was Charania reporting the last link in the chain of events nearly an hour before the starting gun. Irving and Kevin Durant jumped to Brooklyn so quickly that the Nets had to make a big show of being surprised to have landed them.

It’s basically impossible to construct a timeline for all this that doesn’t include some kind of prohibited contact, somewhere along the line. Which is fine! No one from that group of teams is in any way harmed by all this business taking place before it’s supposed to, and the idea that players should not be allowed to have conversations about future career opportunities ahead of free agency is silly. But if you’re the one NBA general manager waiting until 6 p.m. on June 30 before you start making phone calls, first of all you’re fired, you absolute moron! Second of all, you’ve got something approaching a legitimate gripe: what is the point of having a defined period for free agency negotiations if everyone is ignoring it? According to ESPN more than a billion dollars in new contracts were agreed to before 6 p.m. on July 1—under no circumstances were all or even most of those deals negotiated after the opening of free agency just 24 hours earlier.

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So the NBA will investigate how this all went down, not so much in order to punish any offenders, but possibly to “trigger rule changes to the free-agency system in the future.” For now this sounds like Adam Silver just exploring the shape of an imperfect situation, possibly with an eye toward future reform but also very possibly for the purpose of mollifying whiny owners. There isn’t a flavor of “tampering” that is especially worth regulating. The dumber form of it is just people talking to and about each other; this superficially more serious form is players making informed decisions about where to live and work ahead of a relatively arbitrary date. The right thing for concerned owners to do is get over it.

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