Updated: Sep 22
Tampering. We hear about it all the time and we know as sports fans that tampering is not allowed and usually results in some sort of punishment in the form of a fine, revocation of draft picks, or prevention of trades. But what exactly constitutes tampering and why are the Knicks under investigation for it?
What is Tampering?
The NBA's tampering rule states that "an owner, executive, coach, player, or any member of the organization cannot speak to a player signed by another franchise in the hopes of persuading him to join their team." The rule at its base is vague and it might be left that way intentionally. What constitutes persuasive speech? Can a member of an organization simply have a casual conversation with a player? Can players themselves spend time together during the season or in the offseason? We've certainly seen examples of this with the Banana Boat Crew (Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul) and in the numerous player interactions in the NBA Bubble during the shortened season. In a 2018 News Conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated that tampering is "not always a simple, bright line...I think it's a little bit you know it when you see it."
While Commissioner Silver may think he knows it when he sees it, there still must be a formal investigation with tangible evidence of tampering. The room for interpretation comes with how the evidence gathered is analyzed. Examples of tampering violations include:
76ers President Daryl Morey was fined $75,000 for tweeting "Join 'em" about Steph Curry joining his brother Seth in Philadelphia
Draymond Green was fined $50,000 for simply suggesting Devin Booker leave the Suns
Heat President Pat Riley fined $25,000 stating he would leave a "key under the mat" if LeBron James ever wanted to come back to Miami
As you can see, there is a broad range of statements that can be interpreted as tampering and the fines seem more like a preventative slap on the wrist, rather than a harsh punishment.
Why are the Knicks Being Investigated?
This offseason, the Knicks made their big free agent signing with former Dallas Maverick guard Jalen Brunson. Brunson had been linked to the Knicks before the official first day of free agency as the Knicks needed a consistent starting point guard. However, these ties became much stronger and no doubt caught the eye of the NBA when the Knicks hired Jalen's dad, Rick Brunson, as an assistant coach. Well, that seems like a pretty slam-dunk piece of evidence right? The Knicks hired Brunson's dad to get to Jalen through him. Well, the ties may run deeper than just the surface.
The Knicks have seen two assistant coaches come and go since the original hiring of head coach Tom Thibodeau in 2020; Kenny Payne and Mike Woodson who were both lured away with head coaching jobs for their alma mater. Knicks' current assistant coach Johnnie Bryant is still on staff but had been linked to the Utah Jazz as a potential head coach candidate and although he didn't get the job, it wouldn't be surprising to see him moving on from the Knicks in the coming years. As a result, Thibodeau and the Knicks are constantly searching for another talented assistant coach who is not only a valuable contributor to the team's success but also someone Thibodeau can trust.
Enter Rick Brunson. The former NBA player was on Thibodeau's Chicago Bull's coaching staff as an assistant coach from 2010-2012 and again with Thibodeau as an assistant on the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2016-2018. This could simply be a case of a head coach wanting a trusted assistant on the staff.
Now, I'm not oblivious to the obvious connection between the Knicks signing Rick Brunson and following that with signing his son. So, let's analyze what could hurt the Knicks in this case. Beyond the father-son connection, reports of Brunson's signing were released by Shams Charania on Twitter at 5:02 PM on 06/30, an hour before free agency officially opened. The signing was made official by Adrian Wojnarowski at 9:33 PM on 06/30. This comes on the back of weeks of stories surrounding the Knicks and the Brunsons, so the media was primed to jump on the story. Furthermore, animosity came from the Mavericks who stated they never even got the chance to offer Brunson a contract.
In the Knicks' Defense
Full disclosure, I am a Knicks fan, but beyond that, I'm an NBA fan. Even if I wasn't rooting for the Knicks every year, I'd have the same stance on the issue. The Knicks tampering investigation is ridiculous. The NBA has been inconsistent with handing down punishments for tampering and the definition of tampering is too vague for teams and their members to abide by any regulation.
Tampering happens every offseason in the NBA. When the banana boat crew was hanging out together, I find it hard to believe Lebron and Wade didn't float the idea of teaming up with Paul and Carmelo. DeAndre Jordan was signed by the Denver Nuggets this offseason at 6:00 PM on June 30, the exact minute that free agency officially opened. While I think that NBA teams are pretty good at negotiation, I don't think they're making free agency deals in less than 60 seconds. Is it outlandish to think that during the Olympics or in the NBA bubble that players were talking with each other about teaming up in the future or making pitches about when and where to join forces?
The Knicks' hiring of Rick Brunson is suspect from an outside perspective, but it's plausible Thibodeau just wanted a trusted assistant. Furthermore, before Rick Brunson was hired, he could have talked to his son about free agency, and when he was hired, is he not allowed to talk to his son at all?
The Mavericks' displeasure in all of this is unwarranted as they not only had a chance to offer Jalen an extension and Jalen even stated on The Old Man and the Three that he told his father he planned on being with Dallas for his career. Their inability or unwillingness to match Jalen's desired contract is why they lost him to New York, not because New York had been dealing under the table.
I don’t know if the Knicks tampered with the Brunson signing or not. The optics of signing his father and then him in the offseason are not great but there are factors that would suggest the two signings are unrelated. It seems odd for the NBA to pick out this specific signing as the one to go after. It’s widely assumed that teams are negotiating with players before free agency officially opens and players are constantly trying to recruit others to their team. I’m not advocating for the elimination of tampering as a whole, I just think that the NBA needs clearer guidelines for what constitutes tampering and be strict in their enforcement. At the moment, it seems unfair for the punishments to be sporadic and inconsistent. I will eagerly await the results of the investigation and update this article when the findings and potential punishment are released.
Evan Mattel is a 2L at Hofstra Law and VP of Sports for the Hofstra Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He can be found on Twitter at @Evan_Mattel21 and on LinkedIn.