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Heat, Dolphin punishments highlight how NBA, NFL treat tampering differently

Last year, the NBA investigated the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat and found “each violated league rules governing the timing of this season’s free agency discussions.” Which is a fancy way of saying the Bulls and Heat were guilty of tampering (with Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry, respectively).

The punishment? Each team lost a second-round pick, which would have been in the 50s overall. It was a slap on the wrist by Adam Silver and company, not a deterrent. Which is why you saw the Philadelphia 76ers (around the James Harden contract() and New York Knicks (with Jalen Brunson) make moves this offseason that may prove to be tampering but unquestionably improved their teams. Both teams will take a slap on the wrist to take that step forward on the court.

Compare that to the NFL, which came down hard on Miami and took away a first-round pick, a third-round pick, plus suspended Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for the first six weeks of the 2022 season — all for FAILED tampering. The Dolphins didn’t land former Saints coach Sean Payton or former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, they just talked to them. That was enough.

It speaks to very different core ideas about how to run a league (something Heat beat writer Ira Winderman and I talked about today). It also speaks to how much power the players have in the NBA vs. the NFL, where players are more of a commodity and teams treat their careers as disposable.

The NBA knows there is widespread tampering. It understands in an age of iPhones and social media, there is only so much they can do to contain it, so the goal is to keep the playing field somewhat level. The NBA is comfortable with the players having so much leverage over their career and where they play (a little too comfortable for some owners, with recent things such as the Kevin Durant trade request).

Rodger Goodell and the top-down NFL want to control everything — which means stomping out tampering with punishments that make teams step back from the line. The Dolphins were made an example of; the punishment was a deterrent.

The NBA likes the drama around the league, the weeks of “where will Rudy Gobert get traded?” or “where will P.J. Tucker sign?” talk that keeps sports fans buzzing. The league hasn’t figured out how to monetize all that buzz yet — be sure they are working on it — but they see the value in fans obsessing over what comes next and what moves their teams should make.

Fans obsess over NFL moves as well, but not an apples-to-apples comparison because both the salary structures for the two leagues are different, and the impact a single player can have is different. Thanks to the franchise tag and other owner-friendly features, NFL free agency can lack drama. Executives are not flying to meetings in the Hamptons to impress anyone to join their team. Things get wrapped up quickly with the NFL (something more true with the NBA in recent years). Part of that drama is also the nature of the games. While there are Brady/Aaron Rodgers exceptions, one player does not change a franchise’s chances every time they step on the field the way an All-Star level NBA player does just because of how much an NBA player touches the ball and can control the flow of a game.

The NFL remains the 800-pound gorilla of American sports — its ratings, revenue and clout dominate the sports landscape. But the NBA may have a better sense of navigating the evolving media and social world that is natural to younger generations — and a wink-wink attitude toward tampering highlights that.