Tampering and the Flaw in NBA Free Agency

Maybe Rockets GM Daryl Morey didn't tamper well enough.
Maybe Rockets GM Daryl Morey didn't tamper well enough. Screen grab from YouTube
Unquestionably, there are no more fun times in sports off the field (or court) than the trade deadline and the opening day of free agency. And for every league, when it comes to free agency and excitement, the NBA is king.

On Sunday, we saw dozens of transactions hit the wire (aka Adrian Wojnarowski's Twitter feed) within minutes of the official opening of free agency. Thus began a week - signings can't take place until July 6 - of furious action and teams jockeying for position to land stars and role players they believe will get them closer to a title. In early July in the NBA, hope springs eternal.

This week was particularly wild with a large number of players eligible for free agency, but only a few teams under the salary cap, making the wheeling and dealing even more interesting than usual.

The Rockets watched as Jimmy Butler chose Miami over Houston, but managed to re-up with Danuel House, Gerald Green and Austin Rivers, the latter at the league minimum allowing the team to continue to mine what is left of the free agent market for more depth on an already talented roster.

But as fun as it has been so far, a lot of talk around the league has been about the process of free agency itself. Why does the association wait until after the draft, something the NFL doesn't do, to allow free agent signings? With all the clumsy salary cap acrobatics, how can the average fan hope to follow along?

Most importantly, isn't tampering against the rules?

When word came down before 6 p.m. on Sunday that several players would be signing with teams they didn't play for the year before, and even more were announced at roughly 6:01 p.m., everyone who follows the NBA began to wonder if the NBA had simply forgotten its own rules. Teams are not allowed to have conversations with players about joining the team prior to free agency, or so the rules read.

And yet, by the end of the night Sunday, two of the most coveted free agents, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, were Brooklyn Nets, seemingly out of nowhere. No chance they talked to all the teams that showed interest and agreed to a complex contract in about an hour. This clearly had been in the works for some time and everyone knows it.

So, where is the fine? Thus far, the NBA has said nary a word about it. Why would they? This kind of crazy, first-night-of-free-agency drama is exactly what they want. Keeping us all in suspense and then dropping a Woj bomb is like a gift from the sports gods in the dead of July when nothing else of substance is happening - it also makes a hell of a lead in for the Summer League.

Still, there are tampering rules and they are in place for a reason. The league either needs to take them seriously and enforce them evenly or drop the pretense altogether. No one can stop players from planning their next moves together and certainly no one is going to bug the phones of every agent and GM. But if we are all going to ignore what seem to be clear violations of the league's tampering policy, maybe we should just abandon the idea of tampering completely.

Or maybe a better option would be to block any discussions of player signings with fans or media prior to the opening bell. Don't fine the guys smart enough to strike earliest. Fine the ones who can't keep their mouths shut. It would serve essentially the same purpose.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke