Over the last few years, jilted NBA Governors have raised a bigger stink over their players mingling with other teams’ representatives before the free agency period has officially begun. In 2019, the NBA passed stricter tampering rules, including an increase in the maximum fine for tampering to $10 million, the suspensions of executives, forfeitures of draft picks, and the voiding of contracts. The new rules also stipulate that team executives must retain all communications with players and their representatives for one year.
Last summer, the Miami Heat were docked a second-round pick for negotiating with Kyle Lowry before the free agency period began, while the Chicago Bulls were penalized for jumping the gun on their sign-and-trade for Lonzo Ball. The Philadelphia Sixers are being investigated for something much more serious than negotiating early.
This week, the NBA announced that the NBA is investigating James Harden’s decision to decline a $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 and take a pay cut on a new two-year, $68 million deal. Harden’s two-year discount gave him a $14.5 million haircut from what he would have earned in the contract he opted out of.
Salary cap circumvention, which would essentially be an illicit means of compensating players outside of the parameters of their contract in order to slither around the salary cap or luxury tax is a serious offense as far as the NBA is concerned. The gossip mill has been churning out innuendo that Harden signed a team-friendly two-year extension that enables him to re-up for a four-year max in 2023, implying it was part of a wink-wink deal that he’d receive a supermax in 2023.
Additionally, before Harden agreed to an extension, Morey signed Danuel House and P.J. Tucker. Those two signings gave the NBA an opening. Both House and Tucker were former teammates of Harden in Houston, which has led the NBA to rope their acquisitions into their probe. However, nothing concrete has emerged to suggest any improprieties. Harden has burnished his rep as the most surreptitious movers and shakers in The Association.
In the player empowerment era, superstars have taken it upon themselves to choreograph their next stop, but Harden is Machiavellian about his machinations. Where most guys in Harden’s position would sign a series of two-year deals with a player option in the second year, Harden has maximized his earning potential and maintained his ability to sign a supermax. That “1+1” strategy leaves money on the table. Harden’s willingness to take a chance in 2022, and his alleged serial tampering are what made the league turn a spotlight on Philly.
Harden and the Sixers were already under scrutiny for the events that led up to his trade from Brooklyn before the 2022 Trade Deadline. In January, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes addressed the possibility of owners getting the league to probe Philadelphia for collusion if a sign-and-trade were announced. At the time, the odds of Brooklyn trading Harden before the summer seemed remote, but it was Harden’s relationships with Morey, who acquired him from Oklahoma City a decade ago, and minority owner Michael Rubin that had eyes trained like a hawk on Philly’s front office raised when the midseason exchange went down.
The circumstances have changed, but the Board of Governors got the investigation they hinted at after all. If there was any wrongdoing, the 76ers and Harden should be savvy enough to avoid the mistakes that resulted in the Heat and Bulls’ tampering sentences by waiting a few days to confirm their plans rather than announcing complex deals seconds into the free agency period.
Morey should have known the NBA would be scrutinizing his actions this summer. Unless the NBA has a warrant to tap phones, it would be shocking if anything turned up. Everyone knows you don’t discuss verboten actions via text. NBA players can afford burner cells and if the Secret Service can do end-around national security, surely player agents and GMs can wiggle their way out of the NBA’s purview. On the other hand, when has anything related to The Process gone smoothly?
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