Kawhi Leonard was talking to Paul George about the two of them teaming up well before the start of free agency — George’s agent had gone to OKC GM Sam Presti before free agency and already asked for a trade.
There’s little to nothing the league can do if players want to talk and plan. Particularly in this case with Leonard, who was about to be a free agent and leave his team.
What the league does not want — and what it’s going to crack down on hard with its new tampering rules — is teams using players as a proxy to do their recruiting for them, something a lot of smaller market teams fear is already happening. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explained in more detail what he hopes for out of the league’s new tampering regulations in an interview with Sam Amick of The Athletic.
If two players are going out to dinner and say, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great to play in City X together?” That’s not something we’re looking to go after. The only context in which we raised player-to-player communication is where we have a belief that a player is being sent out at the behest of the team to have a conversation with another player that the team itself could not have with that player. In essence, where a player is acting as an agent for the team, and then saying to the player, “What do you think about the following scenario, with the confidence that this is something that my team is willing to do?”…
If a player were to be doing something like that, sort of at the request of his team, that would be inappropriate and that’s something that we are going to be focused on than we have historically. We’re more focused on ensuring that that’s not going on, and if it is, going after it.
In the case of Leonard, who was a free agent, Clippers officials have said on and off the record that they were taken by surprise by Leonard’s request to play with George, that they had not seen that coming. Doc Rivers said Leonard picked George’s name off a list they presented him in a July meeting, and while we know that timeline is not accurate ( at least on Leonard’s end) it’s tough to say the Clippers had Leonard acting as an agent (Leonard was the Clippers’ target).
In Brooklyn, we know that Spencer Dinwiddie had met Kyrie Irving in a business class they were both taking through Harvard, and through that class formed a relationship with Irving and recruited him to Brooklyn. That’s the kind of situation the league has to investigate — was Dinwiddie acting on his own or as an agent of the team? It may well have been on his own, but that’s the kind of situation that raises eyebrows.
Silver’s other theme from his press conference following the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting was he wanted to create a “culture of compliance” around the teams. That’s easier said than done when agents drive some of this, but Silver talked about his goals.
There needs to be — maybe more important, even, than the penalty — a true stigma around cheating. …There’s something unique about sports, (and) I think no one wants to be viewed as having had to cheat to win. And I think what we saw was that it was a slippery slope over time, and people no longer saw themselves as violating our rules. They saw certain practices around tampering, around signings, as business as usual, rather than inappropriate conduct. So a lot of what we’re trying to do is make a cultural shift in this league, and I believe we can do that successfully because I believe teams want to compete on a level playing field…
There are no silver bullets here. There isn’t any one aspect of the package where we came in to say, “This will fix the problem.” This is something that will change over time.
The threat of the league coming down hard on a team and maybe taking away draft picks — which is what teams really fear more than fines or anything else — will have front offices being cautious for a while, likely into next summer. The next move for the league to show they are serious is to make an example of someone with a heavy-handed punishment.
Now in 2021, when the free agent class is again franchise changing — potential free agents include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Bradley Beal, and others — GMs will start taking risks again. It’s a risk vs. reward equation for teams, and when the rewards can be rings, a culture of compliance is a hard sell.