There was a time when the start of free agency in the National Basketball Association coincided with significant announcements on the status of marquee players. Social media would be abuzz with signings left and right as soon as the minute hand reached 12 on the clock. It was supposed to be the moment team officials could begin reaching out to talents they wished to keep or add to their stable. Instead, it became the signal for deals to be announced, in direct contravention of existing policy on the matter. Rules were being followed in the breach, and no one batted an eyelash because, well, everyone crossed the line. Not doing so was tantamount to accepting a significant handicap; truancy meant just keeping up.
In 2019, the front office had enough. In yet another instance of the league highlighting the importance of regulations, it announced that it would be cracking down on free agency violations. Not long after, its probes led to penalties being imposed on such notables as the Bucks and Heat. Fast forward to 2022, and investigations are again under way.
For the Sixers, on tap are agreements they forged with veterans P.J. Tucker and Danuel House that could not have been possible without resident All-Star James Harden taking a pay cut. Which was all well and good, except that the latter hadn’t done so yet at the time his former Rockets teammates were welcomed into the fold. Meanwhile, the Knicks find themselves needing to explain the manner in which they were able to secure the services of erstwhile Maverick Jalen Brunson, who just so happened to be a former client of president Leon Rose, and who just so happened to be the son of newly minted assistant coach Rick Brunson.
There is, to be sure, something to be said about the NBA being selective in its exercise of control. After all, other examples of infringements abound. Take the Nuggets, who announced that they inked bench fodder DeAndre Jordan to a contract in no time at all. Not that de facto flouting of the law excuses the action; the fact that everybody’s guilty does not exonerate those who were caught. Needless to say, the intent of the league is to send a message.
In this regard, commissioner Adam Silver’s intent is not to be punitive; his aim is to curb the practice through prevention, and making examples of a handful should be enough for the purpose. It’s why the penalties look good on paper, but are meted with caution. That said, the efficacy of docking offending parties with second-round draft picks as opposed to going full tilt with $10-million fines and suspensions of executives remains to be seen.
Interestingly, affected protagonists don’t seem to be crying foul — at least not publicly. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, for instance, characterized Brunson’s change of address as “perfect. I saw nothing wrong at all. That’s just the business. That’s just the way it works.” The NBA is contending that it shouldn’t be, and time will tell if it will win the argument in the end.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.