Report: WNBA fined New York Liberty $500,000 for private flights

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The Nets, owned by Joe Tsai, have been accused of what sounds like salary-cap circumvention to benefit their stars.

His WNBA team just got busted for violating that league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with extra benefits for players.

After years of receiving relatively pedestrian salaries and flying coach, WNBA players successfully lobbied for higher pay and better treatment. The new CBA, signed in 2020, requires teams to put players in “premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare)” if available. No less.

But also no more.

Tsai’s New York Liberty repeatedly flew private.

Howard Megdal of Sports Illustrated:

The Napa trip, over Labor Day weekend, violated the WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a benefit that vastly exceeded the allowable compensation to players. So, too, did the charter flights Liberty owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai bought and provided to their team repeatedly throughout the second half of the WNBA season, a competitive advantage for New York that led to a league-record $500,000 fine of the team—originally floated by the league at $1 million, reduced on an appeal, itself an irregular process—and the removal of Liberty executive Oliver Weisberg from the league’s executive committee, sources told Sports Illustrated. The league confirmed these details, as well.

After someone alerted the WNBA to the Liberty’s violations, possible remedies floated by the league’s general counsel, Jamin Dershowitz, ranged from losing “every draft pick you have ever seen” to suspending ownership, even “grounds for termination of the franchise,” according to a Sept. 21, 2021, communication between the league and the Liberty reviewed by SI.

If you’re at all interested in the WNBA and/or sports business, I highly recommend reading Megdal’s full story. It is a fascinating look into a league still finding its footing a couple of decades in.

This is a massive fine, one that would rank among the highest known to be levied by the NBA.

It’s also understandable.

Imagine the New York Knicks ignoring the NBA salary cap and paying players larger sums than allowed. Perhaps, free agents will still spurn the Knicks. But New York would have a far better chance of loading up. Outrage by every other team and their fans would be immense.

There is practically no difference in what the Liberty did.

You might think WNBA owners should get their teams charter flights if desired. But both owners and players signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibiting it.*

*At least how the CBA is being read by the league. The actual wording: “All air travel provided by the Team (including, but not limited to, travel between games) will be, if available on the Team-chosen flights at the time of booking, premium economy (or similar enhanced coach fare).” Could the Liberty have said, “We chose a private flight. There were no premium economy seats. So we put everyone in other seats on the (private) flight?”

Especially because they negotiated with a players’ union, teams can somewhat operate in ways that would otherwise be considered collusion. In some respects, the WNBA is considered to be a single entity competing with other sources of entertainment for revenue rather than the 12 WNBA teams are considered to be competing with each other. In that sense, WNBA teams – and players – can agree on their own set of internal rules for the league.

To that end, there’s a perceived value in a salary cap and other cost-limiting mechanisms. Most people believe competitive balance is good for leagues. If the Liberty and Las Vegas Aces (who are paying Becky Hammon more than $1 million in annual salary because there’s no cap on coaching salaries) disproportionately attract top players, will other teams draw sufficient attention?

The WNBA must strike the right balance between the haves and the have-nots to preserve the league. That won’t necessarily happen without spending limits. But as Megdal’s story details and the Liberty’s flight violation really shows, tension is growing between the owners who want to spend more and those who don’t.

There are potential solutions, including:

  • The next CBA could include a luxury tax/greater revenue sharing between teams. That could make it more palatable for big-spending owners to spend more while the more-frugal owners keep up. However, that would limit the amount of new money going toward players, instead redirecting it among owners.
  • Owners who can’t or won’t afford to spend more could be ousted. Franchises in markets that can’t sustain keeping up with the heavyweights could be contracted.
  • Players who want better treatment and big-spending owners can push for rule changes, even if every team would take advantage of the flexibility.

There’s a never-ending push for the right balance on these types of issues. The WNBA clearly hasn’t found its equilibrium yet.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.