NBA's Latest Free-Agency Penalties Earn Eye Rolls from League Insiders

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IDecember 2, 2021

Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball (2) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Denver. The Bulls won 114-108. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The NBA announced Wednesday that the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat will forfeit their next available second-round picks because of early free-agency contact between Chicago and Lonzo Ball and Miami and Kyle Lowry, drawing a cynical reaction from figures across the league.

The league office was intentional in pointing out that this was not an incident of tampering.

The NBA found both teams were only guilty of communicating with free agents prior to the 6 p.m. ET deadline on Aug. 2. The league defines tampering as teams communicating with players who are technically still under contract with another organization.

The vague language surrounding those future forfeited picks is also notable. Miami could surrender a 2022 selection from either the Denver Nuggets or Philadelphia 76ers due to a previously agreed-upon trade. But if the Heat make the playoffs, which seems likely, that pick will instead be conveyed to the Houston Rockets as part of another previous trade. In that case, Miami wouldn't have a second-round pick to forfeit until 2028.

Chicago could receive a 2023 second-round pick from Denver as well, but that's also protected for selections 31-46. If that pick doesn't convey, the Bulls have already traded each of their future second-rounders until 2026.

Chicago and Miami can't trade any of their currently held future second-round draft picks until the forfeiture is resolved, but that limitation is hardly seen by league executives as a strict handcuff.

Team personnel and agents openly admit year after year such early contact freely exists. The league's punishments for Chicago and Miami likely won't stymie that behavior, either. Especially after the NBA's memo to teams, which was obtained by Bleacher Report, explicitly stated the Bulls and Heat's cooperation in the investigation played a factor in the magnitude of their punishments.

There has long been a gentleman's agreement that it's considered aboveboard, regardless of its legality, to contact soon-to-be free agents once that player and his team have stopped playing games, either at the end of the regular season or once the team is eliminated from the playoffs. Executives and agents regularly hold clandestine meetings inside Chicago hotels during the NBA Draft Combine. Each week, more and more front-office executives and prominent head coaches join the Signal app, the messenger service that uses end-to-end encryption.

And thus, team personnel across the NBA viewed the Chicago and Miami next-available second-round pick penalty as a slap on the wrist. That was the same reaction when the league office dinged the Milwaukee Bucks with a second-round pick penalty for their early contact with Bogdan Bogdanovic a year ago.

"It won't discourage teams at all," one assistant general manager told B/R.

"It's an interesting precedent to set," said another veteran executive. "You have this one and the Milwaukee one. I wouldn't think teams would be scared off if it's a big transaction, for a big player, especially if you plan to be a championship-contending team."

"It was as toothless as a defanged animal," said one veteran agent.

In the case of Miami, the Heat aren't exactly known for valuing second-rounders anyway. The Heat front office prides itself on finding undrafted gems, dating back to Udonis Haslem in 2003 and more recently with Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.

And if the New Orleans Pelicans had been adamant about the Bulls surrendering an additional second-round pick in the sign-and-trade that paired Ball with All-Star guard Zach LaVine one year before LaVine himself reached free agency, Chicago would have willingly paid that price.

"If you know you're gonna pick between No. 45 and 60, that pick doesn't have that much value anyway," said another front-office executive.

In today's climate, second-round picks also appear more available than ever. Teams can trade north of $5 million in cash this season, and in recent years, second-round selections have sold in the range of $2-3 million on draft night.

This all comes after September 2019, when some ownership figures lamented the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets landing their offseason coups of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and the NBA increased the maximum penalties for teams caught tampering from $5 million to $10 million and potential loss of first-round draft capital. 

Starting at this year's summer league, there were widespread rumblings about Chicago and Miami receiving hefty fines, first-round pick penalties and a possible suspension for Bulls lead executive Arturas Karnisovas. However, those early whispers were met with strong skepticism. And once the league's investigation stretched into the regular season, few team personnel expected the NBA to levy a punishment much harsher than it did Wednesday.

"Obviously, you can't unwind the transactions," said one team counsel. "There would be so many teams caught up in it."

If the league sent Ball back to New Orleans, how would that have affected the Pelicans' other sign-and-trade for Charlotte Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham? If Lowry wasn't able to join Miami, would that have restoked the coals of a Ben Simmons sign-and-trade with Philadelphia? That order of events quickly would have gotten messy.

All of this begs the question why the NBA doesn't allow some form of legal tampering, such as contact once a player's incumbent team is done playing games. It would bring the shadow game out of the shadows, just as name, image and likeness rights did for the NCAA.

The NBA is most concerned about teams contacting players under contract for the potential legal ramifications that could follow, according to one team counsel contacted by B/R. The league has shown no interest in policing players from meeting to discuss their future free-agent and trade-request decisions. The league could turn the other cheek for teams' early communication as well, but ownership figures who cried out in 2019 likely would push back here as well.

For now, penalizing the offenders second-round picks has been viewed as one step above no penalty at all. The Bulls and Heat swiftly issued statements accepting their punishments. The next teams caught in these crosshairs likely will, too.