Unmasking Tampering in the NBA: Rules, Risks, and Notorious Cases

In the ever-evolving landscape of professional sports, the transfer market is now marked by a notable trend among players. As their contracts approach their natural expiry, many of them choose not to renew and instead opt for a free transfer to another club. This strategic move empowers players to take control of their destiny, liberating themselves from the constraints and strategies of the market. In doing so, they often secure more favorable salary terms with their new club. This is because the primary expense incurred by the acquiring team relates to the commissions paid to agents and intermediaries involved in the negotiation.

However, the fierce competition in the sports world means that negotiations rarely wait until the last moment, typically commencing several months, or even years, before a player’s contract officially expires. This process unfolds while the player is still in discussions about renewing with their current team. While this practice is universally accepted in football, it’s important to note that in the realm of basketball, it’s a different ball game altogether.

In the United States, a specific term has been coined to describe this practice: “Tampering.” This term finds its place in Article 35 of the NBA Statute. In this article, we’ll delve into what Tampering entails and its implications.


  • What is Tampering and How Does it Operate?

The NBA’s Statute, the collection of rules governing the league, defines Tampering as “any form of communication between managers, agents, coaches, or players under contract with different franchises, with the intent of persuading an athlete to consider a potential transfer or hinting at possible market developments.” Violations can arise from both public declarations and private conversations, and they are penalized uniformly.


  • Risks Faced by NBA Teams in Cases of Tampering

Over the years, the NBA has put in place a number of anti-tampering rules to stop teams from illegally courting players who are under contract with other teams, especially when those contracts are about to expire. However, it has been hard to enforce these rules. That’s why, in 2019, the National Basketball Association made it harder to mess with games. Due to this, teams may have to pay fines of up to $10 million, give up future draft picks, have executives who were involved suspended, or even have the transfer canceled in the worst cases.

In 2020, a year after these new rules came into effect, the Milwaukee Bucks were penalized. They lost their second-round pick in the 2022 Draft and received a $50,000 fine for reaching agreements with Bogdan Bogdanovic too early. These agreements were made official just a minute after the transfer market officially opened. The NBA’s rationale behind this penalty was that the early agreements had caused harm to the league.


  • Notable Tampering Cases

In December 2022, an NBA investigation led to a ruling that the Philadelphia Sixers would not be allowed to select any players in the second round of the 2023 and 2024 drafts. This decision stemmed from the franchise’s discussions with two free agents, PJ Tucker and Danuel House, before the official opening of the transfer market on July 1st. Remarkably, this violation was not deemed severe enough to nullify the contracts signed by these two players.

A year prior, the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls also faced repercussions for tampering in relation to the transfers of Kyle Lowry and Lonzo Ball, respectively. Lowry moved to Florida from the Toronto Raptors, while Ball landed in Illinois from the New Orleans Pelicans. Once again, the NBA refrained from imposing hefty fines and instead restricted the clubs from making the second pick in the draft the following year.

However, the most notorious tampering case dates back to 2019. It involved then-Clippers coach, Doc Rivers, who heaped praise on Kawhi Leonard, declaring, “He’s the closest thing to Jordan that I’ve ever seen.” He further compared Leonard to other basketball legends like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. It was no secret that Leonard was a coveted prospect for the Los Angeles Clippers in the upcoming free agency period, and Rivers’ words only amplified suspicions. The NBA responded with a fine of 50 thousand euros, reiterating the strict prohibition against any comments on players under contract with other teams. Shortly thereafter, Leonard did indeed sign with the Clippers, leaving no doubt that the money spent on the fine was a wise investment.

In conclusion, Tampering is a thorny issue in the NBA, with regulations in place to prevent its occurrence. However, enforcing these rules consistently remains a formidable challenge, given the complexity of monitoring conversations between agents and players in an industry where relationships extend far beyond the basketball court. Nonetheless, the league continues to take measures to preserve the integrity of the game and ensure fair competition.