Three teams have been fined by the NBA for violating the league's tampering rule just weeks before the opening of the 2013 free-agent market.
Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today first reported the news, including the fact that the Atlanta Hawks were one of the three teams found to be in violation. ESPN's Marc Stein confirmed the report and added that the Houston Rockets were also found guilty of the infraction. Stein said that the sanctions for these violations have yet to be released.
UPDATED by Zach Buckley at 5:25 p.m. ET on June 11
The Sacramento Kings have been identified as the third team fined for tampering. Both Sacramento and Atlanta confirmed the fines in statements released to USA Today.
The Kings found themselves in hot water for comments that new coach Michael Malone made at his introductory press conference. He welcomed speculation that his new team might pursue one of his former players, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul.
"Obviously, Chris would look pretty good in a Sacramento Kings uniform without a doubt," Malone had said.
Malone coached Paul during the 2010-11 season when both were with the New Orleans Hornets.
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The Hawks had come under a great deal of scrutiny after a sales letter advertising tickets for next season specifically referenced the names of two free agents widely rumored to have caught the team's interest: Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Organizations are forbidden from directly or indirectly courting players (or coaches or executives) who are still under contract with their current teams.
Hawks president Bob Williams later called the letter an "unfortunate" mistake made by an individual member of the ticket sales staff. It's yet to be determined just how costly that mistake was, but the potential appeal of Paul and/or Howard was better than anything that the salesperson could have sold to potential buyers.
Atlanta's Philips Arena was filled to just 80.8 percent capacity last season, the eighth-lowest figure among all 30 teams. The Milwaukee Bucks, 80.3 percent, were the only other playoff team to finish in the bottom third in attendance.
Then again, there's no guarantee that even Howard and Paul would register among the lackadaisical fanbase:
Worst part of Atlanta's tampering debacle is all prospective ticket buyers said "Who?" And then went back to Dawgs offseason training— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 10, 2013
ESPN's Marc Stein confirmed USA Today's report and added that the Houston Rockets were also found guilty of the infraction. Stein said that the sanctions for these violations have yet to be released.
Stein also confirmed that Atlanta's sales letter was found to be a violation, while Houston ran into problems for stories written on the team's website. That led at least one analyst to wonder if the league had overstepped its bounds if it had effectively stripped its teams' sites of the ability to post any compelling, relevant news:
So the NBA wants more web hits on its teams' sites but won't allow teams' sites to talk about free agency or draft. Makes perfect sense, not— Matt Jackson (@MJ4Sports) June 10, 2013
Both Atlanta and Houston have the financial flexibility to be among the biggest players this offseason. The Hawks have less than $19 million committed to next season's payroll, via HoopsHype.com, while the Rockets could have as little as $38-plus million in salary for the 2013-14 season.
Paul and Howard are the two premier free-agent targets of the class, with a combined 13 All-Star selections between them. There has been speculation about both signing with each of these two franchises (along with others), but at some point the league office determined that they had overstepped the boundaries set forth in the league's collective bargaining agreement.
The free-agent market won't officially open until July 1.