NBA: Will the new anti-tampering rules prove to be effective?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /
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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images) /

On Friday, the NBA Board of Governors voted to pass stiffer anti-tampering rules so we’re taking a look at the history of free agency. We’ll also discuss why the NBA saw fit to make the move now and why this attempt at regulation may ultimately be nothing more than posturing in the current era of player empowerment.

Over the years, the NBA has done it’s best to try and create a league that is as competitive as possible. A league that maintains at least the perception that all 30 teams have the chance to be competitive. Whether that perception is a reality is for you to decide, dear reader.

One such effort in recent years is the flattened draft lottery. The rules, approved on September 28, 2017, went into effect for the 2019 draft.  The draft format ensured that the team with the worst regular-season record would be guaranteed a top-five draft pick.

Now, the NBA powers that be have seen fit to address another issue that has become very apparent during the 2019 off-season, that of tampering.

‘Pogo’ Joe Caldwell the father of NBA free agency

To understand how the NBA ended up where it was on Friday, it helps to know the story of ‘Pogo’ Joe Caldwell, the first NBA player to become a free agent all the way back in January 1971. We don’t have time to get into Caldwell’s entire story here but if you’ve got some spare time and love the game of basketball as I do, it’s a fascinating read.

Caldwell was drafted first overall by the Detroit Pistons back in the days before the NBA and ABA combined to become the league as we know it today. In his rookie season, the 23-year-old made the All-Rookie team and the All-Defensive team.

The NBA was still in its infancy by 1966 when Caldwell was traded to the St. Louis Hawks where he played with NBA legend Lenny Wilkens. But Caldwell’s issues would be with management, not his teammates. One of the major differences of the time to today’s NBA is that players were not allowed to be represented by an agent. Meaning during contract negotiations, Caldwell had to deal directly with Hawks’ owner Ben Kerner.

Even 50 years ago, NBA owners came with reputations. As James Dolan is known as today’s most incompetent NBA owner, back in the day, Ben Kerner was known as the cheapest. The article goes on to explain the contract Kerner initially got Caldwell to sign.

"Caldwell negotiated a two-year contract with him that paid $27,000 the first year, $30,000 the second year, and included a $20,000 home loan. The deal was not as sweet as it seemed. Caldwell never got the loan, but the contract was signed. Kerner never had the intention of loaning Caldwell any money to buy a new home. He just wanted him to sign the contract."

I found this part of Caldwell’s story particularly interesting as it shows that the NBA’s current policies designed to avoid salary cap manipulation serve to protect the player as well as the team. Because what happens if a player comes to a side deal to keep a team under the cap and then the team goes back on it? It’s not like its a situation where the player can just report the issue when they’re just as culpable for the situation.

After swindling Caldwell, Kerner did some shady stuff during the 1967- 68 season to undermine his own team providing him with a reason to sell giving Caldwell the opportunity to renegotiate his contract. Since he was not allowed to employ the services of an agent, Caldwell hired Los Angeles negotiator Marshall Boyer who specialized in real estate transactions. Boyer was able to negotiate a contract worth twice what Caldwell had previously made.

Then, during the 1970-71 season, Caldwell was the Hawks’ fan favorite for the second consecutive year giving Boyer an opening that allowed him to secure Caldwell a five-year deal worth $1.875 million dollars. But later that day, the Hawks’ owner who the deal had been struck with back-pedaled saying they had come to no such agreement.

Having had enough of being jerked around, Caldwell quit basketball altogether taking a job at a manufacturing company where he made more than he did as a player. Crazy, right? It’s impossible to imagine an NBA player today making more like a blue-collar worker than as a professional athlete.

Then, the ABA came knocking. Tedd Munchak, owner of the Carolina Cougars, an ABA expansion team wanted Caldwell to come and play for him. Caldwell once again brought in Boyer to negotiate his contract, this time with an irrevocable guarantee. Basically, this meant that the contract could not be changed by either party or any reason.

But there was a hiccup. The NBA had a “reserve clause” in their contracts that meant that if a player wanted to change leagues, they had to be away from the game for a full year. This clause, was, of course, designed to keep players under the thumbs of NBA owners and management. The NBA tried to enforce the clause in Caldwell’s case with an injunction but that failed.

Federal District Judge Edwin Stanley ruled in Caldwell’s favor in January of 1971. The miserly ways of the Hawks’ ownership came back to bite the NBA in the butt. Judge Stanley found that because the Hawks had offered Caldwell a contract worth less than 75 percent of his previous contract, they had violated the NBA’s reserve clause.

This ruling made Caldwell the first free agent in NBA history, allowing him to immediately sign with an ABA team. But for Caldwell’s savvy decision-making and the wherewithal he had to have someone experienced do his negotiating, who knows? The NBA as we know it today could very well never have come into existence.

Maybe Shaquille O’Neil isn’t able to jump ship from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers, destroying one franchise and creating another remarkable chapter for a team that was already the stuff of NBA legend. Maybe LeBron James doesn’t ever team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Maybe Kawhi-watch 2019 doesn’t fuel the conversations of an entire country, perhaps even an entire continent for so many tense days.

But thanks in part to ‘Pogo’ Joe Caldwell, free agency is an integral part of the NBA whether we love it or hate it. And without free agency, there would have been no need for the NBA owners to unanimously accept a new, stricter set of anti-tampering rules.