When DeAndre Jordan infamously backed out of a verbal agreement to join the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 2015, it shed light on the complexity (and folly) of having a kiss-and-tell period in the lead up to actual free agency. Jordan’s capitulation (while under LA Clipper imposed house arrest) not only sparked an emoji war, but lead to a shortening of the moratorium period by 5 days.
Fast forward one year, and the situation isn’t that much better. While no player backed out of any verbal commitments this time around, the whole pre-free period seemed like a dog and pony show performed on a frozen lake in the spring: one wrong move and the whole thing sinks into oblivion. Imagine if Kevin Durant, in an 11th hour moment of guilt, backs out of his verbal to Golden State and returns to the Thunder? The dominos would have fallen far and wide affecting signings and trades with multiple teams, and the whole system would have been in total shambles. Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
While the NBA moratorium is inherently flawed, it does exist to address a basic reality. As teams get closer to the hyper competitive free agency starting line, there is huge pressure to get a head start on your competition by getting in front of your target early. This is especially true in the NBA, where one big time player acquisition (or loss) can radically alter a team’s competitive position.
As someone who was in the business of trying to get a leg up on the free agency race for almost two decades, my solution to this negotiation reality is inspired by… climate change? Let me explain.
In trying to address the reality that some industries release more greenhouse gases than others, regulators came up with the concept of cap and trade, where emissions credits of ‘good’ polluters could be traded to those ‘bad’ polluters who needed them. It has proved to be a relatively simple, yet elegant, tool in the fight against a warming planet.
Applying this model, my plan would see the moratorium remain in place conceptually, but instead of the free-for-all that exists now, it would be regulated by a ‘pre-free agency visit market’ that would see teams with players on expiring contracts have the option to grant up to 3 ‘negotiation windows’ to competitor teams who have interest in signing those players. The price of this window would be pre-determined cap space that the potential signee team would have to set aside and, if successful, would transfer to the team losing the player. The original team could then go into the market place at the expiration of the moratorium and either use that cap space to sign/trade for other players or trade that cap space for draft picks.
To illustrate using Durant as example, the Thunder could have theoretically granted negotiation windows to the Spurs, Knicks and Warriors for $10 million in cap space. Each of those teams then gets to make their pitch as currently allowed. If Durant signs with any of those teams, the Thunder get $10 million in extra cap space to either use or trade. The Warriors might feel they have the inside track on Durant but would be nervous to let other teams have a six day head start. It’s not a perfect solution, and there might well be some finer points of the NBA rules that I am not considering, but at least bringing some order to the current wink-and-a-handshake moratorium rodeo will prevent that sink o oblivion disaster that I believe is lurking under the ice for the NBA.