You didn’t think this would just be the new norm, did you? Player empowerment means that players have more power now. If they have more of it, it only means someone has less. The people in question, NBA owners, are not used to losing power, and they are not happy.
Free agency and trade season is a dynamic period when the NBA landscape changes so dramatically it takes us weeks to figure out who is playing where and what just happened. It drives a lot of interest towards the NBA, and that is good for business. Owners understand that they profit from fan interest (as proven by the latest Forbes team valuation) so when tampering and bending of the rules started to become more obvious, they took notice but didn’t raise a fuss about it. This summer was different.
It started with Anthony Davis asking for a trade with two years left on his deal and culminated with Paul George asking for a trade only a year into a four-year max contract.
Having a first-class organization became more important to convince players to stay or to join your team. Teams had to invest in staff, facilities and convince players they would go into the tax when necessary to contend for a title. This meant owners are spending more and seeling a vision to players.
But once you get a player under contract for multiple years, you expect he’s a part of your championship equation you don’t have to worry about for a few years. This summer turned that expectation on its head. If players can walk in a GM’s office regardless of how many years they have left and ask for a trade, you are under constant stress. And billionaires buy sports teams as their very expensive toys. Toys are supposed to be fun.
So when the NBA’s board of governors had its annual meeting in Las Vegas, there was only one major point of discussion. How do we take control back? As reported by Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe, Michael Jordan “discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement.”
The reality is superstars are now competitors with teams in free agency. LeBron can recruit and knows he won’t be investigated and fined, and in the free agency perspective, he becomes a direct competitor to let’s say Boston. Yet, teams are under more scrutiny from the league office when it comes to tampering. Not saying it’s a lot of scrutinies, but it is more than the players get.
The brainstormed solution is in the direction of leveling the playing field by letting teams talk to players and their agents more. We all know it is happening and the league office obviously doesn’t think enforcing the tampering rules would make anybody happy, so why not acknowledge the elephant in the room. This was stressed to teams when NBA’s general counsel Rick Buchanan asked the room if they would be comfortable with the league “seizing cellphones and servers”, something that would happen if tampering rules were to be enforced. We can all guess what the answer was.
When it comes to this summer, the league opened an investigation into all contracts that were signed a few minutes into free agency. Possible fines are coming, but nothing dramatic is likely to happen. This is punitive, but also exploratory – if you plan to adapt the rules, you need to know how the system works behind closed doors.
The change won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. The owners won’t just give control over to the stars; we can be sure of that.