The league has announced that it’s cracking down on tampering. Any team guilty of wrongdoing can now get fined up to $10 million and lose draft picks. Executives can be suspended and contracts voided. Five franchises will also be randomly selected to have their communications with agents and rival executives audited, among other measures.
It’s hard to be against any of those changes. No one likes blatant tampering, after all. Still, it’s naive to think the new rules will be able to prevent the type of abuses they are designed to stomp out.
The league probably knows that, but is going through with the measures anyway because it desperately needed to address the tampering concerns growing among the media and fans. The announcement was a good PR move, but it’s hard to see it as more than that.
It’s important to note that the league office could have cracked down on tampering in the past, as they already had the ability to impose big penalties. Instead it was lenient. Just two years ago, for example, there was evidence that the Lakers had tampered in their pursuit of Paul George. Not only did Magic Johnson essentially say on TV that they were going after the star wing, but the league also found that Rob Pelinka had engaged in talks with George’s agent to express interest in a player that was under contract at the time. Despite having proof of wrongful behavior, the Lakers were only fined $500,000 despite the maximum allowed by the rules at the time being $5 million. And that half-a-mil fine was the highest in league history for such transgression.
Precedents like that make the league seem almost complicit with the proliferation of the problem it now seems so concerned with solving. It also make the new harsher penalties seem unlikely to ever be imposed. What, exactly, would call for an extreme punishment that includes the loss of a draft pick when in the past clear cases of tampering resulted in a tenth of the max?
Beyond the new penalties, the league announced that it will have more tools to investigate tampering, like getting guaranteed access to phones and random audits. Again, that sounds like a big step forward, but might not be as significant as it seems. The process that resulted in the fine for the Lakers, for example, reportedly included a search of the phones of people involved, so the league seemingly had that power before. The audits are new, but they are unlikely to produce results unless teams are incredibly sloppy. Even in some cases in which tampering seemed likely in the past — LeBron to the Heat, Kirilenko to the Nets, etc. — it’s been hard for investigators to find evidence, which suggests foul play is either easy to hide, difficult to prove, or less frequent than we think.
There are also obvious ways to tamper that the new policies can’t account for. It will be impossible to police face-to-face interactions, for example. How will the league office find out what Rich Paul, who represented both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, discussed with Lakers officials in his visits to team facilities while Davis was still under contract with the Pelicans? A general manager could say they are meeting with an agent to discuss a client who is a free agent but actually talk about one who is under contract with a different team. Silver made it a point to mention that one of the goals of the changes is to “dramatically” increase the league office’s chances of catching tamperers, but unless team officials and agents get extremely lazy it seems the new rules won’t be able to accomplish that.
Then there’s player-to-player contact, which wasn’t addressed. One of the most discussed cases of potential tampering happened last summer with Kawhi Leonard recruiting Paul George to the Clippers. There’s nothing stopping that from happening again. The LeBron James - Dwyane Wade - Chris Bosh Heat team-up was reportedly planned years in advance when all three stars were with Team USA. The speculation about Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant talking about joining teams during the All-Star break proved to be prophetic. In the era of superstar empowerment it’s not the franchises or some shady agents calling the shots and arranging deals but the players themselves. There’s nothing that can be done to change that, no matter how much the league wants to make it looks like there is.
Alas, perception is apparently all that matters. The league office made a big deal of an announcement that boils down to updating penalties that were already in place but have rarely been imposed to the maximum extent and instituting investigative tools that could be close to useless. Some team is going to get fined for being careless on a small matter, but it seems unlikely we’ll see a voided contract on a big transaction or a loss of draft picks. Business will probably continue as usual, but with deals announced a few hours instead of a few minutes after free agency officially starts.
Which is fine, of course. Most of the tampering going on seems harmless enough, with only some cases affecting the league’s competitive landscape and deserving serious punishment. If the new measures actually manage to prevent some of that truly heinous foul play, they’ll be worth it.
Until they do, however, it will be impossible to consider Friday's announcement as anything other than damage control done in the face of scrutiny: a cunning PR move that promises more than it will ever deliver.