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Five Ways the NBA Changed Off the Court This Offseason

New tampering rules, a shifting salary cap, NCAA shenanigans, and a new Nets owner: Basketball will be back soon, but the sport is ever-evolving

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The middle of September usually marks a whole lot of nothing for the NBA. Content from players is limited. Workout videos are posted by trainers and pored over by fans: Can Ben Simmons shoot now? (Probably not.) Is old—i.e., young—Dwight Howard back? (Again: probably not.) Has Carmelo Anthony been featured in enough open-gym scrimmages to warrant an NBA return? (Absolutely not. But the man is certainly trying. Maybe he should try Boomerangs? Or a different filter?) Free agency is in denouement. Most offseason drama has subsided. (Unless you’re one of the three players—Blake Griffin, Kyle Kuzma, and Kelly Oubre Jr.—currently rumored to be dating Kendall Jenner. Which, more power to her. The woman’s a more accomplished recruiter than Nick Saban.)

Most disappointing was the FIBA World Cup, which was supposed to provide some entertainment (or at least distract the basketball world from body-shaming Zion Williamson) and end with the United States winning gold. Instead, Team USA finished in seventh place. So much for the Celtics’ season expectations. But, hey—at least the tournament ended with a happy Ricky Rubio.

Next week, our long national nightmare will finally end. Training camps will begin. Player news will resume. But while you were Googling Zion weight updates on the daily, major off-the-court changes quietly took place this offseason. (I’ll save you a click: He’s jacked now.) The league, the NCAA, and the state of California have all pushed for new rules that could shape the future of the NBA. Salary cap projections for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons were announced. Some techie bought the Brooklyn Nets. (And he wasn’t even vetted for ties to the Russian mafia.) Here are the five most important off-the-court changes this offseason, explained.

New Tampering Rules

Fool me once, the saying goes, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me annually for decades each free-agency period because you broke an unenforceable tampering rule, shame on … I’m not sure. Me again? The proverb’s creator, poet Anthony Weldon, never got that far. His book, The Court and Character of King James, was a little short-sighted, NBA-wise. (It was published in 1650—that’s a different King James.)

The league is tired of looking like a sucker. It’s put many rules in place to prevent player and team tampering. Yet each free agency, the best players in the class come to terms with teams posthaste. “In the first 90 minutes of free agency this summer, at least $1.4 billion in contracts were committed to across the league,” ESPN reported Sunday. In a memo sent to teams Friday, the NBA prefaced its proposed rule changes with the passive aggression of someone who suspects his roommate is eating all his food. There is a “widespread perception that many of the league’s rules are being broken on a frequent basis,” the league wrote.

On Friday, the board of governors will vote on the proposed changes. The most considerable proposal would double the maximum fine for teams caught tampering to $10 million. Ten million dollars. That’s more than Fred VanVleet will make this year! And he’s an NBA champion who didn’t get enough love for Finals MVP! You don’t have to agree with me! Hubie Brown does! I know that doesn’t help my case! I’ll die on this hill!

Anyway, here are the other submissions for the NBA board of governors to review, per ESPN:

• A requirement that a team report, within 24 hours, any instance of an agent or player representative asking for a benefit that is not allowed under the salary cap or collective bargaining agreement (‘unauthorized benefits’)

• A requirement that teams preserve communications with players and their agents for one year

• New channels for teams and team employees to anonymously report rules violations or tampering

• Prohibiting players from inducing players under contract to request trades

• A proposal to conduct investigatory audits of five randomly selected teams each year to assess compliance with system rules

• Teams will have to require its governor, top basketball operations executive and negotiators to certify annually that they did not talk to free agents or their representatives before the league rules allow. And with every player contract signed, each team’s governor will have to certify that no unauthorized benefits were offered and no rules were broken.

The threat of shelling out $10 million might be enough to scare some front offices, but others will simply become more careful. Consider how many teams were fined for tampering this offseason: zero. Consider how many teams approached players before it was technically acceptable to do so: I don’t have a figure for you, because it’s nearly impossible to prove, but it’s surely a lot, given this response from the NBA. Adam Silver isn’t monitoring every GM’s text messages. He’s not invited to sit in on illegal meetings with players and enjoy the cheese spreads. The rule asking teams to self-report—via “new channels for teams and team employees to anonymously report rules violations or tampering”—is as realistic as that 2015 “Do the Right Thing” commercial where the basketball player calls the out-of-bounds on himself. (Alex is, to me, still a top-five worst teammate of all time.)

The wording here—“new channels for teams and team employees”—isn’t exactly clear. Perhaps the league is intending to create new, more secure channels for one team to report on one another, rather than self-report. (Or maybe both.) But do franchises care about those optics? Has the fear of being outed as the informant really stopped one team from reporting another before? In 2017, the Pacers filed tampering charges against the Lakers; in 2019, amid the Anthony Davis drama, the Pelicans asked the NBA to “strictly enforce the tampering rules” with the Lakers. (Maybe there should just be a Lakers clause?) The most interesting new proposal is hidden in the middle: “Prohibiting players from inducing players under contract to request trades.” This is clearly a reaction to the player empowerment era, in which players have not so subtly recruited superstars to their teams. One could extrapolate that this is how Davis wound up a Laker and how Paul George landed on the Clippers. Still, the gatekeepers’ actual ability to police this measure seems unrealistic: Players are going to talk.

New Salary-Cap Projections

On Monday, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported projected salary-cap figures for the two seasons following 2019-20. In 2020-21, the salary cap is estimated to be $116 million with a $141 million luxury tax threshold. Those numbers will get a significant bump the subsequent season; in 2021-22, the salary cap is a projected $125 million, the tax level $151 million.

Last September, the salary cap for the 2020-21 season was projected to be $118 million with a $143 million luxury tax threshold—so the latest numbers represent a $2 million decrease in projected space. (The 2021-22 figure remains the same.) That downward shift makes planning difficult for front offices, especially when the shrinking projection is for a season coming so soon. Teams sign players with those estimations in mind, and that change has increased pressure on those teams already capped out for the 2020-21 season. The Sixers, Rockets, and Warriors, for example, are all above $143 million for 2020-21.

And then there’s the supple 2021-22 projection, which hasn’t ruined plans just yet. The $125 million will arrive right on time: That summer, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, and LeBron James can reenter free agency. Dream big, front offices. (But maybe don’t spend big, just in case.)

New NCAA Agent Qualifications

I can never decide who the NCAA would’ve been in high school. The bully? The tattletale? The guidance counselor with terrible, counterproductive college advice? Let’s go with whoever did you dirtiest. If those FBI investigations into college basketball corruption hadn’t made waves last season, the organizing body likely wouldn’t have made changes to its policies. In March, after months of embarrassment and uncovered criminal activity and bag men, the NCAA finally relented. A couple of rule changes were adopted. Among them was the opportunity for college basketball players to change their minds and return to school even after having declared for the NBA draft.

Of course, this change didn’t come without NCAA supervision. Players had to follow a couple of guidelines to be eligible, including that a player must request an “evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee”; agents must be certified by the NBPA and the NCAA; the agent-client relationship must cease if the player decides to withdraw and return to school. (The agent was also limited from carrying out normal agent duties. The NCAA said it was fine for the agent to be “contacting professional teams on behalf of the student-athlete and setting up tryouts with professional teams,” but under no circumstances could the agent help their client with typical draft expenses, such as housing, travel, food, etc.)

But even those stipulations weren’t good enough for the NCAA’s liking. In August, it sent a memo to NBA agents with updated terms. Being NBPA-certified was no longer enough. An agent wishing to represent an NCAA basketball player who may or may not return to school now must:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree
  • Be certified with the NBPA for three consecutive years
  • Take an in-person exam at the NCAA office in Indianapolis

The NCAA argues that it is trying to protect its student-athletes from bad agents with bad advice. But it’s not clear how these rules could do that—the agents who would be excluded wouldn’t be the ones landing the big-name prospects anyway, and those newer agents can probably better help the NCAA’s midtier players who need to work harder to land workouts and other opportunities with NBA squads.

A trip to Indianapolis just to take an in-person exam might alone be enough to weed out a few agents. Then there’s the bachelor’s degree requirement, an amendment quickly nicknamed “the Rich Paul rule” by Rich Paul client and longtime friend LeBron James. The two have been working together for 17 years—half of LeBron’s life. Paul runs his agency, Klutch Sports, in a way that’s attracted top talent (like Davis) and infuriated NBA front offices (like the Pelicans). Paul is known for his confident, cocksure nature, which has often worked in his clients’ favor. His other well-known attribute: Paul did not graduate college. He was 21 years old when he met LeBron.

Certified NBA agents typically have their degrees. Paul is undeniably the most high-profile agent in all sports without one. LeBron and Paul swiftly denounced the Rich Paul rule. LeBron lambasted it on Twitter; Paul had more to say. He penned an op-ed for The Athletic, which included this passage: “Requiring a four-year degree accomplishes only one thing—systematically excluding those who come from a world where college is unrealistic. Does anyone really believe a four-year degree is what separates an ethical person from a con artist?”

The NCAA was embarrassed again into amending the rule. Now agents without a bachelor’s degree have to “be in good standing with the National Basketball Players Association.” But they might have to walk it back even further: Last Saturday, per ESPN, the NBPA sent a letter on behalf of certified agents to the NCAA stating that NBA agents object to the NCAA’s new agent-certification process and will not register or participate in it. The letter says the rules give the NCAA unnecessary regulatory power: “It is more of a mechanism for NCAA to garner access to personal and private information of Certified Agents in what amounts to subpoena power to embark upon investigations that are wholly unrelated to protecting the interests [of athletes].”

New Pay-for-Play Legislation in California

There are no money line odds in sports for governing body vs. governing body, which is a shame, since so many groups are picking fights with the NCAA now. That the NBA will eventually come for the NCAA—as Adam Silver hinted at with his views on the one-and-done rule—is predictable: It benefits the former for the latter to just loosen up a little. Not as predictable is an actual state government checking the NCAA. Last week, the California State Assembly passed a bill that would allow college athletes in the state to make money off their name, image, and likeness. This matters to the NBA because the bill could change the definition of amateur status (and the collegiate requirements a player needs to join the league).

The Fair Pay to Play Act was written by Nancy Skinner and Steven Bradford, two California state senators. It cleared the state Assembly with a 73-0-6 vote before passing the state Senate 39-0-1. Skinner convinced a group of her colleagues to unanimously approve, but the bill’s livelihood now rests on convincing one more person: Governor Gavin Newsom. “Once the chambers work out any differences, which is expected to be a formality,” The New York Times wrote, “Newsom will have 30 days to sign it.”

If Newsom signs, the bill will go into effect at the start of 2023. It would challenge the NCAA’s foundational principle: You’re an amateur athlete only if you’re not being paid. Introducing that law—even in just one state—will shatter the NCAA’s nationwide autonomy. Obviously, the NCAA is opposed to the bill. In a letter to California legislators, NCAA president Mark Emmert, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, and other “leaders in college sports” wrote that the bill would give California schools an unfair recruiting advantage. The letter threatened excommunication: There’s a chance, if the bill passes, that the NCAA will ban California schools from competing in NCAA championships.

“It’s like you and I sit down to play Monopoly,” Andy Fee, the AD at Long Beach State, told The New York Times, “and I pull out a different rule book and every time I pass Go, I’m going to give myself $400 instead of $200. I don’t imagine too many people are going to be willing to allow California schools to compete for NCAA championships.”

That’s the thing about states’ rights: Progressive legislation often begins with just one state before eventually spreading to all. The NCAA isn’t worried about California schools having a leg up over the competition. It’s worried the pay-for-play dam will bust altogether.

New Nets Owner

Long live Mikhail Prokhorov, Nets owner for the past decade. Before we talk about Brooklyn’s new owner, Joseph Tsai, a moment of silence for Prokhorov and a slideshow of his greatest hits: There was the time he was investigated by the NBA for ties to the Russian mob. And the time he was arrested (and later released without charges) in the French Alps in 2007 because French officials thought he was flying in prostitutes for his rich friends. My personal favorite was a quote hidden in a New Yorker piece from 2012: “When asked recently on national television whether he had ever participated in corrupt dealings, Prokhorov shrugged and replied, ‘Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?’” The NBA never found evidence of Prokhorov being involved in organized crime. (That’s next-level tampering.)

In Tsai, the league gets another tech bro. He’s the cofounder of Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce conglomerate. He studied law at Yale, owns part of Los Angeles FC, and all of the National Lacrosse League franchise the San Diego Seals. And he must really love basketball: Tsai first purchased 49 percent of the Nets in 2018 for $1 billion. Then, in August, he bought the other 51 percent, and the Barclays Center on top of that. The deal—accounting for the $1 billion Tsai originally paid—values the franchise at $2.35 billion. It’s the most money anyone’s ever shelled out for an NBA team. The Nets have an up-and-coming young core, and thanks to the Kevin Durant–Kyrie Irving effect, their revenue is already projected to grow 10 to 15 percent from last year. Making money right away: such a nice parting gift from Prokhorov, and a warm welcome for Tsai.