On Sept. 20, the NBA’s Board of Governors increased fines for free agent tampering up to $10 million. In reaction to this year’s suspicious free agency trades, NBA teams and players are now subject to audits, phone searches, and higher fines for illegally contacting or negotiating with free agents.

Terry Rozier free agent deal among those that may have triggered harsher tampering penalties and fines
Terry Rozier went from Boston to Charlotte as part of a series of complicated — and suspiciously quick — free agent deals. (Image: Mary Altaffer/AP)

The start time for NBA free agency is 6:00 pm June 30. That’s when teams can start negotiating with free agents. Before that time, players are still under contract and off limits. This year, it was obvious teams weren’t playing by the rules.

An Athletic writer leaked the terms of Terry Rozier’s deal with Charlotte at 5;12 pm on June 30 — well before the starting bell. Barely a minute after the start of free agency, an agent announced Kemba Walker’s $141 million contract with the Celtics. Other trades quickly followed, making the timing hard to ignore. In July, sources reported the NBA was investigating potential tampering.

NBA’s Past Fines Failed to Slow Tampering

According to the NBA, it’s a violation for anyone affiliated with an NBA team to directly or indirectly entice, induce, or persuade, any player, coach, GM or other person under contract to leave for another team. This includes everything from backroom negotiations before the free agency deadline or making public statements that may lead a player to believe he’s wanted by another team.

LA Lakers tampering penalty of $500,000 over Gainnis Antetokounmpo
The NBA fined the Lakers $50,000 for tampering with Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (pictured). This month the Lakers signed his brother Kostas. (Image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty)

Over years, the LA Lakers have been fined on both ends of the tampering spectrum. The Lakers were fined $500,000 back in 2017, when GM Rob Pelinka talked with Paul George’s agent while George was still under contract with the Pacers.

Last year, the Lakers coughed up $50,000 after team president Magic Johnson gushed about Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo during an ESPN interview. The Bucks held onto Giannis, named this year’s MVP. The Lakers, however, unabashedly signed his brother Kostas earlier this month.

But those tampering penalties, and others like them, don’t appear to have deterred premature free agency poaching. So, the NBA has upped the ante.

Bigger Fines and Random Audits

Both the poor optics of this year’s free agency period and the complaints lodged by smaller NBA franchises deserve credit for the NBA’s actions.

Previously, an NBA team could be fined up to $5 million for tampering, although the Lakers’ $500,000 fine is the largest tampering penalty on record. So doubling the maximum tampering fine to $10 million appears more symbolic than substantial. Meanwhile, the fines for unauthorized agreements are now $6 million per team, and $250,000 per player.

The NBA’s new tampering rules also take a stab at prevention. The new regulations include up to five random audits per year. Audits would include turning over phone and email records. While prudent, the move leaves many to wonder about its efficacy in an era of burner phones and encrypted chat apps.

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