The NBA is exploring ways to prevent tampering between players, agents, and teams. Changing the offseason schedule could help.
Five months ago I challenged The Knicks Wall readers with an idea about whether abolishing the NBA draft would benefit the New York Knicks or not. That proposition was never strongly considered among league elites Adam Silver and the NBA’s Board of Governors (the team owners assembled to tackle latest rule changes and address current issues).
Two weeks ago, however, presented an issue about which both Silver and the Board of Governors felt strongly enough to enact barriers and new legislation. The Board ratified stronger enforcement and penalties for “tampering,” with vague promises to better catch violators and “rogue agents.” This won’t be an easy task, and it could backfire, but the league seems bent on catching ne’er-do-wells in the form of players, agents and representation, and front office officials scheming outside the legal limits of choosing where to play.
This calls to mind the issue of the draft again but also the NBA’s free agency period, which was moved up this year, with the moratorium beginning the next calendar year on June 30th at 6:00 EST. In recent memory, players and teams had already committed verbal contracts or handshake deals prior to the unofficial start of free agency, prompting Silver and the league to investigate the legality of players and agents speaking to team executives about playing for franchises before they were free agents.
Adam Silver says the potential for changing dates of free agency is still on the table, but doing so requires collective bargaining with the players. Said there have been informal discussions on that front already.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) September 20, 2019
Part of the reason this is under scrutiny is because free agency—when franchises dip into their salary cap to field a roster—comes after the draft. There have been whispers about changing that order, though, to essentially allow teams to sign free agents before draft night.
This change would have to go in effect for the next collective bargaining agreement (the current one was decided in 2016, in effect 2017–18), but it’s plausible that within our lifetimes we could see a fundamental change to the NBA’s offseason.
The most immediate impact of moving free agency before the draft would be championing veteran signings over investing in youth vis a vis the draft. For example, the Boston Celtics left draft night with four new prospects on board, plus undrafted free agents signed. It would be difficult to plan your roster accordingly with the ability to sign free agents prior to draft night.
The biggest “pro” for moving free agency up is to prevent tampering. It seems Silver and the governors will never dismiss player-team chatter in earnest, unless they can create a more nebulous situation as close to the start of free agency as possible. For example, Philadelphia 76ers veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick was a free agent this past summer and picked the New Orleans Pelicans. Would he have picked Team Zion in the theoretical period after the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis and prior to the Pels taking Williamson first overall?
More than anything, moving the draft after opening free agency would create even more movement around the league, which has seen hundreds of players change teams in recent offseasons. Think of the bevy of draft night moves—De’Andre Hunter, Jarrett Culver, Jaxson Hayes, Matisse Thybulle, Brandon Clarke, and Darius Bazley were all affected by draft night trades, and those aren’t even the total first-round moves.
More than anything (most than anything?), player chatter would be dampened by opening the market before teams can make franchise-altering decisions during the draft. Not every player, including the elite, All-Star ones, sign at 6:01 p.m. For example, Kawhi Leonard dragged out his decision for a week-plus. Few players have the monastic patience of the two-time Finals MVP, but moving the draft back could see the unintended consequence of more players of various abilities waiting longer to put pen to paper. Why should anybody sign immediately if stars have confessed to chase competitive teams as a free agent (or a not-so-free agent in Paul George case)?
Ultimately it’s difficult to believe “tampering” would be considerably sidelined by moving the draft after free agency opens. Instead, in theory, the NBA would be creating the legal framework for players to talk to each other—instead of subtly (or not-so-subtly) inching closer to a destination before they can actually speak to organizations. This could result in players waiting for the start of free agency to watch how the draft shakes out before picking a team. Or, more likely, talking to each other and waiting for teams to bite. If last summer is any indication, the trend is players communicating with one another in order to team up Voltron style, with All-Stars forging new career paths in new cities. No one is under contract anymore—things can change in a heartbeat.
Moving the draft back would possibly forestall players’ decisions, or force teams to pay veterans up front before building the youth infrastructure via the draft.
For the Knicks, it’s hard to believe a push for All-Star talent would have been achieved in this theoretical dynamic. All reports indicate Steve Mills and Scott Perry catching wind that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had no true interest in the Knicks, along with turning down a meeting with Kawhi Leonard because he had other, westward plans. The Julius Randle marriage occurred serendipitously, but the ex-Pelican is the only close to elite talent New York snagged in free agency.
In terms of using a gradually competitive team as a platform to entice free agent All-Stars, this past offseason is a poor representation of how a draft/free agency swap would drastically change how things went.
It won’t happen any time soon, but moving the draft back could be a useful resource for players to continue to exert their dominance in the NBA, as opposed to other professional leagues. Veterans would benefit from greater uncertainty in the period prior to the draft, but you could also see teams, like in the MLB, simply not sign players until conceivably after the draft because they don’t want to pay for mediocre contributions.