The NBA is investigating whether or not the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat tampered before their sign-and-trade agreements to acquire Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry, respectively, as free agency opened on Monday.
By league rule, teams aren’t permitted to have contact with players under contract with another team. Technically, players are under contract with their current teams until free agency begins.
Nevertheless, the news, first reported by ESPN and later confirmed by NBC Sports Chicago and other outlets, has created confusion and questions. Here are a sampling:
Doesn’t this type of stuff happen often? Why are the Bulls and Heat being singled out?
Well, yes… and no.
Every year, reporters break news of verbal agreements on deals as soon as free agency begins. The difference in most cases is that those are straight signings into teams’ salary-cap space or to return to their current teams.
Who can forget the Bulls and Cristiano Felício agreeing to terms on a four-year, $32 million deal as one of the first transactions broken when free agency opened in 2017? Coincidentally, that deal expired as this new NBA fiscal year began and the Bulls’ Ball agreement broke.
Sign-and-trade transactions are typically more complex. They involve not only a team receiving a verbal commitment from a player on a contract, but also two teams agreeing on compensation to complete the package.
In the Bulls’ case, the Pelicans are currently projected to receive Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple and a second-round pick. From the league’s perspective, how could both Ball’s salary and a trade package be negotiated and agreed to within seconds of free agency opening? Particularly since Temple, as a free agent, also needed a contract value determined as part of the complex transaction.
But didn’t teams hold trade talks centered on Ball in March?
Yes, but in those conversations, Lauri Markkanen stood at the centerpiece of the package offered to the Pelicans. And while surely other compensation could have been — and likely was — discussed, Markkanen’s non-inclusion in the trade package initially reported as free agency opened raised a red flag.
So what happens now?
The league conducts its investigation. League officials are allowed to randomly audit team executives’ cell phone records, including text messages, and emails. While correspondence with player representatives occurs year-round, teams — again — aren’t allowed to have contact with players under contract to another team.
If either the Bulls or Heat are found guilty of tampering, punishment would follow. In 2019, NBA commissioner Adam Silver signed off on stronger penalties for infractions. These can include fines up to $10 million, suspensions for executives, the forfeiting of draft picks and even the voiding of a deal.
At this point, most league observers would be surprised if either deal is voided. The Heat already has officially announced its acquisition of Lowry. But the sign-and-trade compensation could change, particularly in the case of the Bulls, who have yet to formally announce their acquisition of Ball.
Last year, the NBA docked the Bucks a second-round pick in their failed sign-and-trade attempt to acquire Bogdan Bogdanović from the Kings after an investigation confirmed tampering. Given that the Bucks didn’t ultimately acquire Bogdanović, who landed with the Hawks, and the Heat and Bulls landed their targets, most league observers expect stiffer penalties should the teams be found guilty of tampering
It’s instructive to note the Bulls already are down either their 2023 or 2024 first-round pick to the Magic as part of the Nikola Vučević trade. And in the current iteration of their yet-to-be-announced sign-and-trade acquisition of DeMar DeRozan, they’re due a future first-round pick to the Spurs.
How long will this take?
The league took close to a month to finalize its investigation into the Bucks’ situation with Bogdanović. With the NBA set to get back on track after two seasons of its calendar being upended by the pandemic, teams are scheduled to report to training camp in late September.
All parties involved will have their answers before then.