LAS VEGAS — The NBA’s summer free agency period got off to an impossibly fast start.
Within minutes of the June 30 opening bell, superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had agreed to sign maximum contracts with the Brooklyn Nets. A day earlier, reports surfaced that the Boston Celtics had “plans to reach an agreement” to replace Irving with Kemba Walker. How, cynics wondered, could all-stars possibly feel comfortable signing nine-figure contracts without so much as a two-minute meeting?
This type of immediate agreement, preemptively negotiated through back channels, has become standard practice in recent years. But it tramples the NBA’s guidelines, which specify that teams and players cannot have contact before June 30 and cannot officially sign new contracts until a seven-day moratorium has passed. This year, more than $3 billion worth of agreements were reached in the first 24 hours of free agency, a rush that led many stars to eschew meetings with suitors and that forced teams to make instantaneous, rule-bending or rule-breaking decisions or risk missing out on their top targets.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged Tuesday that the league needs to update its free agency and tampering rules to accommodate the increased pace of agreements and the commonplace rule-skirting regarding contact between players and teams.
“We always knew there was some leakage and slippage around those deadlines,” Silver said while addressing reporters after a Board of Governors meeting. “We need to revisit and reset those rules. It’s pointless to have rules that we can’t enforce. It hurts the perception of integrity around the league.”
There are numerous factors that contribute to the NBA’s free agency rush: Communication has become more efficient, the shortening of contract lengths has led to an increase in the number of free agents each summer, the rise in salaries has led many players to prioritize market factors over maximum earnings, and intense fan interest has prompted saturation coverage by the media.
“There’s always been sort of stuff around the edges that’s gone on,” Silver said. “It may have moved to a new level because of a lot of circumstances, [including] the minute-by-minute coverage we all get. It puts pressure on teams. It puts pressure on players. It puts pressure on all of you to break stories. Here we are in 2019. It’s a very different world than it used to be. How should we adjust accordingly?”
Indeed, a perceived rise in tampering, or illegal contact between teams and players, was a hot-button issue all season. In December, Silver issued an internal memo reminding teams that “conduct that interferes with contractual employment relationships is prohibited,” adding that teams should “refrain from any conduct — including public statements — that could be viewed as targeting or expressing interest in another team’s player.”
The NBA fined then-New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis $50,000 after he made a public trade request through his agent in January. The Pelicans issued a public statement requesting that the NBA investigate possible tampering between Davis and his preferred destination, the Los Angeles Lakers. By June, though, Davis had been traded to the Lakers.
In another high-profile example, the Los Angeles Clippers were fined $50,000 when Coach Doc Rivers compared then-Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard to Michael Jordan during a television interview in May. The Clippers signed Leonard as a free agent this month.
Although Silver did not announce imminent changes to league policy, he said the NBA would seek possible solutions that could be enacted “unilaterally” by the league office, and others that would need to be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Players Association.
The NBA’s Board of Governors, he said, were especially “concerned” about the damaging effects of trade requests. In addition to Davis, who had more than a year left on his contract at the time of his request, Paul George reportedly requested a trade by the Oklahoma City Thunder last week even though he has three years remaining on his four-year contract. The Thunder responded by sending George to the Clippers.
The Davis and George situations represented a potentially ominous precedent, because both players are elite talents who successfully forced their way from small-market teams to Los Angeles despite being nowhere near the end of their contracts.
“[Trade demands] are disheartening to the team, they’re disheartening to the community, and they don’t serve the player well,” Silver said. “That’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and there’s not a simple solution there. Players have leverage and economic power of their own. But that’s what collective bargaining agreements are for — to sit down and come up with a set of rules that are sensible and fair for everyone.”
In another development revealed Tuesday, the NBA will be taking a page out of the NFL’s playbook next season, allowing coaches the opportunity to challenge one call per game. Instead of throwing a flag like their gridiron counterparts, NBA coaches will call a timeout and then “twirl their finger towards a referee” to signal for a challenge.
Silver said the addition to the league’s instant replay program is a “one-year experiment” intended to have a minor impact on game play. Coaches will only be able to challenge fouls called on their own players, out-of-bounds calls and goaltending or basket interference violations.
As with other overturned calls in the NBA’s video review system, “clear and conclusive visual evidence” is needed to uphold the challenge. An overzealous coach who attempts to challenge a call without any timeouts remaining will be issued a technical foul, and his challenge request will be ignored.