After DeAndre Jordan Mess, It Might Be Time for NBA to Alter Free-Agency Rules

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJuly 9, 2015

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. — No one likes a killjoy, a spoilsport, especially when the transportation emojis, from rocket ships to banana boats, are flying fast and furious in the Twitterverse, Paul Pierce is finding a modern use for clip art, Kobe Bryant is feeling the need to remind the public (again) about his trophy stash (can he ride them?) and Mike Woodson is suggesting he was swimming when he was actually seated on the baseline at a summer-league game in landlocked Orlandowell, other than its man-made lakes.

And, certainly, it's always a good time for Blake Griffin's interior-decorating tips

So find an angry face if you must. 

But whatever fun was had Wednesday, the DeAndre Jordan flip-flop, from a verbal agreement with the Mavericks to an $88 million re-signing with the Clippers, as reported by ESPN.com, still qualifies as a farce for the NBA.

And a fail. 

Yes, it keeps people talking about the league, which has always been an NBA priority. But they're talking much in the same way that people talk about Greece's economic decisions and Donald Trump's choice of words and hair.

Not all publicity is good publicity.

And not all policy is good policy. 

And, if anything comes out of this circus other than a Christmas Day game between the Clippers and Mavericks in Dallasone certain to include liberal use of intentional foulsit should be a serious discussion about putting the free-agent moratorium on permanent hiatus, first in the upcoming Board of Governors meetings and then through collective bargaining.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 13: Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons stands on the court during a game against Portland Trail Blazers on March 13, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

Certainly, such a conversation would be welcome for some veteran league personnel, who are just about as confused as you are. Stan Van Gundy, who has been working in the league for two decades and is merely the president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons, hasn't the slightest clue. 

"The only thing I'll say is I don't really understand the concept of why we need a moratorium period and we don't just have a period where we can start doing business," Van Gundy said Wednesday, at the Orlando Summer League.

Well, that wasn't all he would say. 

"I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm sure there's a reasoning behind it," Van Gundy added. "I guess I don't understand it. The cap doesn't get set until [Wednesday night] anyway. If they can get the cap set on July 8, they can get it set on July 1, you know. They got some really smart people. So they can do it then. And also, if they didn't set it before [Wednesday], just start business [Wednesday]. So I don't really, I don't get it. But that's the way it is. So..."

But, of course, this is not the way it is in other major professional sports leagues, leagues that seemingly have access to a similar level of accountants to do their audits.

The NHL holds its draft in late June, typically a couple of days later than the NBA does, and allows free agents to start signing contracts at noon on July 1. The NFL lets its players sign immediately after setting the cap, usually at 4 p.m. early in March. And while Major League Baseball doesn't have a salary cap and does have a six-day "cooling off" period after the World Series prior to allowing free agents to sign with new teams, that has never devolved into quite the chaos the NBA process has. 

So why the moratorium period?    

Why not just set a date and time when the cap will be set and start free agency at that very moment, with every team authorized to presentin person, by fax, by email or whatevera binding contract immediately?

Why not allow the teams to know the exact salary-cap and luxury-tax numbers before they start officially operating, so they don't do something—like agree to shed the salary of a holdover player or promise a particular exception—before they know exactly where they stand against the cap and tax?

Isn't that the cart coming before the horse? Or the mule?

Well, the semiofficial explanation from the NBA is that it started the moratorium in 1999 to establish equal footing between all of its franchises, by creating a buffer that prevents teams from getting commitments prior to that periodand then a signing spree starting in the opening minutes, before other teams had an opportunity to react.

Basically, the league wants to give all the seemingly non-cheating teams a chance, regardless of their market size. And over time, this holding period has shrunk, from a month down to closer to a week, 10 days last season and eight days during this one.

But it should shrink much, much more, maybe even down to nothing.

David Phillip/Associated Press

That's because, while the rationale is understandable in principle, it's hard to prove the moratorium has had the intended effect, not even on the cheating component. You'd be foolish not to think some whispering isn't done well before the moratorium starts, between players on a team and those who may be available, and even (more carefully) between agents and teams, especially when agent and owner are as chummy, say, as Dan Fegan and Mark Cuban.

Plus, there's an unintended consequence to placing an artificial dead spotin terms of locking in contractsinto a schedule when the phones are so live. Things become much murkier, since there are many different interpretations about what exactly is supposed to be occurring during this "downtime."

Teams all seem to know they can't hold press conferences to announce the players with whom they've verbally agreed to terms, though that doesn't stop them from leaking the information to reporters in a way that pushes the market forward. Nor are all clear on exactly what the players can discuss. Most know not to make the players available to the press, but they're fine if you just happen to reach them through their agents or if they take to Twitter, as Dwyane Wade did earlier in the week, to conduct a Q&A.

And they are forced to contort their tongues and keyboards into the most creative language, such as this verbatim statement from the Heat on July 1: "Miami HEAT President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley announced today that the team has been engaged in negotiations with free-agent guard Goran Dragic and intends to re-sign him to a player contract at the conclusion of the NBA Moratorium Period." 

Then they need to keep secrets when in plain sight, or they think they do. That's why, even as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sat with Dragic for two hours Wednesday, watching Goran's brother Zoran play in the summer league, and even after Goran played for the Heat for the final two months of last season, and even after Goran's deal had been finalized for seven days, the Heat were careful not to post a photo of the coach and kind-of-free-agent point guard together to their official Twitter account. And they told reporters not to ask Goran about his free-agent situation.

That paranoia is understandable, because if not careful, it's possible a team could run the risk of a fine, like the $25,000 one Cuban received from the league for speaking on his app Cyber Dustnow an apt description of the Mavericks offseasonand on radio about the Jordan signing.

Though he should have been fined for saying he saw Jordan as "Shaq-like" on sports talk radio station The Ticket, it seems a bit silly to be monitoring speech so closely, especially when all the major outlets, including the NBA's television partners, were reporting the Jordan deal as done. Or sort of done. Or done, barring Jordan doing what 26-year-olds sometimes do when making major career decisions, like change their minds. 

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

The protagonists of Fight Club weren't this strict when it came to not talking about Fight Club, and at least that film had some accomplished actors. NBA people don't do secrecy nearly so well. They gossip more than the Real Housewives of Name-Your-NBA-City, and at least, again, those housewives are real, or most parts of them, anyway. 

But the real problem here is it's hard to determine whether the moratorium is real or just virtual reality. It sure seems like the latter, since no matter how the league likes to portray this publicly, the teams certainly think what happens during it is set in stonewell, unless you're the Clippers, and you happen to know your former, and now again current, starting center is more than a little insecure and fickle.

That's why the NBA Players Association felt compelled to come out with a statement Thursday afternoon (via ESPN's Ramona Shelburne) to remind everyone "the moratorium period exists for both players and teams to thoughtfully weigh and consider options before signing any contracts," that "there was a risk to both parties," and that "we all" (emphasis added) enter into "those conversations understanding that as with any business contract, it's not a deal until the paper is signed." 

Cuban has been a success in all sorts of other businesses, but it's clear here that whatever the spirit of the moratorium, he was under the assumption that verbal agreements in this case were not conditional but final. And he's not alone among owners, or executives, in that assumption. Once word is given, the deal is done. They've secured a player's services. That's why they move on to the next need. That's why, if they don't think they've landed the player, they move on to the next one at that position. 

That's what everyone did in this Jordan situation, and that's why the Mavericks are so mad now, and why plenty of other teams may be peeved too. Once Jordan gave Dallas his "word," it gave the green light for many other trainsor whatever other transportation emoji you chooseto keep running.

Now, everything is off track, more so even than when Hedo Turkoglu, Elton Brand, Jason Kidd, Carlos Boozer and others had changes of heart, because so much time, nearly the length of the moratorium, passed prior to Jordan's alerting everyone to his reversal. And you can't rewind time to where it was when all went awry.

Had the Mavericks known they weren't getting Jordan, they could have more vigorously pursued other players, such as Robin Lopez or Kosta Koufos. Perhaps they would have engaged in more serious sign-and-trade discussions with Indiana for rim-protector Roy Hibbert, before the Pacers dumped Hibbert on the Lakers. Several other players may have chosen different destinations than they did, had Dallas still been an option, or had someone else chosen Dallas.

But they didn't know.

You know how they'd know? For absolute sure? 

If they had been able to present a contract to Jordan as soon as they were legally allowed to convince him to come, they would have had a better shot to make it stick. And if he wavered, they would have had the option to quickly move on with another agenda. Yes, the pressure would have been on him to act quickly, but he could have prepared for that and any other contingency with his agent well in advance of the signing period. NFL players manage to do it, and there are more of them, with more agents, more positions, more variables. 

Instead, due to the NBA's moratorium, Dallas was left waiting and was until it ended, according to Cuban. He said Jordan still has not officially alerted the Mavericks, even after finalizing his deal with the Clippers. For that, Jordan should take some heat, because proper etiquette dictates his offering some explanation, especially to a prospective employer that was willing to give him $80 million.

David Phillip/Associated Press

But he shouldn't be shamed for the other stuff, not if the moratorium is what the NBA maintains it is, in terms of being fluid for players, without the ability to lock in their futures. He was allowed to do what he did; you could even say he was encouraged, because the rules had been set up to protect that right. So he's not the one responsible, not really, for the ripple effect that submerged several other players, nor for the Mavericks' house of cards collapsing.

The system is.

The charade is.

Van Gundy said he had never worried about losing a player he had signed during the period, with Reggie Jackson, for $80 million, his most recent major one. 

Now? 

"I mean, it's sort of a tough way to do business if that's gonna happen," he said. "I think [the Jordan situation] will change the whole dynamics, in terms of trust," Van Gundy said. "I think it's tough on the agent. Your guy switches; it's tough the next deal you want to do. Nobody's trusting."

Apr 8, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban watches the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Suns 107-104. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe, instead of relying on unwritten rules, teams should be able to secure a commitment in writing, from the start, as is expected in many other lines of business. And maybe players should be able to expect the same from teams, to protect them in case an executive suddenly alters his opinion and sees someone else whose price is slipping and may present better value at a later stage of the moratorium. Or someone who seemed committed elsewhere but has had change of heart, maybe even because someone else who was supposed to join that player's squad has had one. And so on. 

"It's interesting," Van Gundy said of Wednesday's affair.

It was amusing too in the short term.

It was also amateurish, and not because of the actions of the parties involved but because of the conditions the league had created. 

So Jordan, in his waffling, might have been onto something after all.

Sometimes it's necessary to consider a change. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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