Report: NBA investigating Lonzo Ball, Kyle Lowry sign-and-trades for tampering

Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball
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Last offseason, a sign-and-trade that would have sent Bogdan Bogdanovic to the Milwaukee Bucks was scuttled in part due to tampering, where the Bucks had reached out and struck a deal before the official start of free agency. Bogdanovic became a free agent and signed with the Hawks while the Bucks lost a second-round pick as punishment.

This offseason, four other teams are being investigated for tampering over some of the offseason’s biggest moves: The Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade to the Bulls from the Pelicans, and the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade to the Heat from the Raptors. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news.

There are a lot of moving parts here and a lot of unanswered questions.

• First, we should note there is an “innocent until proven guilty” aspect to this. The NBA investigating and the NBA finding evidence of tampering are two different things.

• If proof is found, the NBA can void the new contracts. However, as those trades have already been officially executed and the players are with their new teams, the more likely outcome is large fines and a loss of draft picks. Front office personnel can be suspended as well, although that also seems a longshot.

• The bigger picture question: Where is the line the NBA is trying to draw? Every team tampers, most of the time they are able to do it through intermediaries and with other steps to give them plausible deniability. Every team reaches out to free agents early, they just do it covertly. This is why free agent signings are announced every year :30 seconds after the start of free agency.

Do quickly announced sign-and-trades somehow differ in the league’s mind than quickly announced signings (they are more complex than a straight free agent signing)? Was a complaint registered with the league by another team or agent, or did some other evidence come to light? What triggered this investigation over the hundreds of other things the NBA could investigate as tampering every year?

The NBA laid out plans for a crackdown on tampering a couple of years ago, although that has not slowed the process. The league office has concerns about the increased focus on trades/free agency/team building taking away from the focus on the games themselves (where the league wants the spotlight). Two years ago, a series of events — LeBron James publicly courting Anthony Davis, deals obviously struck before free agency began, Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly asking for prohibited extra benefits — sparked the tampering crackdown.

That hasn’t slowed anything, it just made teams more cautious. Think of it like the speed limit: Everyone is going over it, but everyone is trying to find the line of how fast they can go without getting pulled over. Teams are smarter with their technology, also. While the league can confiscate the phones of front office people to investigate tampering, it is easy to avoid having evidence there (burner phones, or conversations on apps where the message self destructs, are a couple of simple examples).

• Do fans care about tampering? No. It’s more about perception, but the league does a lot of things for perception.

• There is an easy way to avoid a lot of this: Allow any player whose contract is expiring (or where they can opt-out) to talk to teams as soon as their season ends. For example, why should Lonzo Ball have to wait until Aug. 1 for teams to talk to him without tampering, because of the arcane wording of his contract? It’s not giving certain teams an advantage — any team can talk to any free agent — and it avoids what comes off as arbitrary enforcement of a rule everyone breaks.

For now, we all wait on the details of what could be a very interesting case.