There’s nothing more stressful in the NBA world than having a star player whose contract is about to expire.
Jazz fans know that from the Gordon Hayward experience of 2017. And now, Pelicans fans are feeling the heat about their star, Anthony Davis, just as Raptors fans feel it with Kawhi Leonard, just as Hornets fans feel it with Kemba Walker.
It was Davis' situation that got the league talking last week. When LeBron James was asked by an ESPN reporter about what he thought of the prospect of Davis joining him in Los Angeles, James said, “That would be amazing, like, duh. That would be incredible." The two share an agent, James' friend Rich Paul, and went to dinner together before the Pelicans played the Lakers.
For some general managers around the league, this constituted tampering, the notion that you shouldn’t be going around and trying to actively recruit players who are under contract with another team. One Eastern Conference GM told ESPN that "It’s New Orleans' problem today, and a problem with a different player tomorrow for the rest of us. It’s open season on small markets and our players.” Then the league issued a memo this week that basically reminded teams that they shouldn’t be tampering.
Let’s start here: James' comments weren’t tampering by any reasonable standard. Of course it would be “amazing” to play with Davis, he just put up 48 points and 17 rebounds in a game this weekend! Every player in the league would want to play with Davis. If James is asked about the possibility, should he say “No, that would be terrible!"? Of course not.
Nor can or should the league prevent James from going to dinner with Davis, or any other player. When I travel for NBA games, I go to dinner with beat writers from other NBA markets. We talk about our jobs, too. But does that mean I’m going to the Charlotte Observer? Again, of course not. NBA players are people, they should be allowed to go to dinner with their friends.
Tampering happens all of the time in the NBA, but the really impactful stuff happens between NBA general managers and player agents, as the former group tries to plan for offseasons to come by finding out the intentions — and trying to change the intentions — of the players the agents represent. But again, this is wildly impossible to enforce. The NBA is not like a government with subpoena power, they can’t get call records or text records or spy on people’s conversations. In the Davis situation, the Lakers have hundreds of reasons they could be calling Rich Paul legitimately, so any contact there isn’t proof that the Lakers are doing anything untoward.
There’s a legitimate and compelling argument that tampering actually helps the team with the expiring star. Take the Chris Paul situation with the Los Angeles Clippers, now nearly two years ago. Paul was under contract with the Clippers, but had the option of opting out in the summer of 2017. The official story is that the Clippers just decided to trade Paul, their franchise player, to the Rockets before he became a free agent. Suuuuure.
What really happened is that Paul and the Rockets tampered all over the place with each other, and Paul came to the conclusion that he’d be a good fit with Houston. He then told the Clippers that he wanted this and planned to opt out, and the Clippers and Rockets were able to agree on a trade that sent players to L.A. in return for Paul. And what do you know, the Clippers are using those players to have a successful season in the Western Conference this year, they’re ranked 4th.
If everyone communicates about the situation — Gordon Hayward being a notable example of the opposite — tampering gives the team that would lose their star anyway a chance to plan for the future.
The general managers that complain about tampering seem to have this naive notion that if they were really the only team who was able to talk to their expiring star, that they’d just definitely decide to stay around come the week of free agency. Of course, this ludicrous idea boils down to believing that players aren’t being objective about their choices, that they’re so easily hoodwinked into a bad deal by a slimy rival that just happened to be early to the party that they’d ignore what’s best for them overall.
The league does need the tampering rules to prevent public comments from management, because it would legitimately hurt the expiring player’s team’s fanbase to hear, say, Danny Ainge going on SportsCenter selling Boston’s finer points to Davis.
But as far as the private stuff goes? Or comments from players? Let it be.