$25,000 fine a sign to keep up good work

August 13, 2014, 7:08 PM

If the NBA really cared about Drake publicly encouraging Kevin Durant to join the Toronto Raptors as a free agent two summers from now, they would have fined him a lot more than $25,000.

Or, they would abolish the salary cap, and neither of those is happening.

The salary cap is the best thing to ever happen to the NBA. Instituted in 1984-85 — when there was a reasonable case to be made that the league was in deep financial distress — it now might be the most effective mechanism ever invented for separating the league’s best players from their true worth.

And tampering? Please. The NBA is a $5-billion business. There is almost no financial penalty they could levy on a business as lucrative as MLSE that really matters.

When the league fined the Toronto Raptors $25,000 because Drake encouraged the crowd at his recent concert to let the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder star “hear what it would be like if he played in Toronto,” they weren’t really trying to prevent future instances of Drake reaching out to star players as the Raptors’ global ambassador.

They were just trying to help Oklahoma City save face.


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Similarly, the idea that the league would offer to rescind the fine if the team disassociated itself with the Toronto-born artist seems unlikely, not to mention implausible.

It’s August in Toronto, Canada, and the Raptors and the NBA have been making headlines around the world for nearly a week precisely because of Drake’s so-called tampering.

By any measure, this is behaviour the NBA wants to encourage. Any suggestion of heavy-handed arm-twisting could only have been in jest.

Now, is it in the Raptors’ benefit to play up the idea that the league is somehow picking on them?

That’s more likely, given the franchise’s entire marketing campaign – “We The North” – is built around the idea (not crazy) of being alienated from the basketball mainstream. Anything that cements that storyline is free advertorial.

Besides, $25,000? That’s not a fine. That’s permission.

The minute the NBA gets serious about tampering is the minute they begin forfeiting team’s draft picks.

That won’t happen, because if anything, the NBA has set itself up to make tampering a vital part of doing business. The salary cap guarantees it.

How much LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Chris Paul might actually be worth if the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Lakers or Toronto Raptors could spend without limits is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question it’s a lot more than the $20 million or so each of them pull down annually.

There are estimates that Kobe Bryant at his peak was worth $75-million a year to the Lakers. I have no trouble imagining a world where the Knicks would pay James $100-million annually.

Keep in mind, when the small-market Minnesota Timberwolves were faced with losing Kevin Garnett to free agency following the 1997-98 season, they signed him to a 6-year, $121-million extension before the 1998 lockout, where – among other concessions – the NBA owners won a rookie salary scale and a cap on individual contracts.

Thus was born the ‘max deal.’

If Garnett was worth $21 million in Minnesota in 1998, when the salary cap was $30 million and NBA franchises were valued at about $150 million on average, what would he get now in a world where the Los Angeles Clippers are worth $2 billion?

More that the two-year, $42-million deal LeBron James just signed with Cleveland. Much more.

As a result, you have a star-driven league where the stars all have approximately the same amount of earning power, regardless if they’re working in Oklahoma City or New York City.

In a proper world, if the Toronto Raptors wanted to make a huge splash in the NBA, they’d pick some crazy amount of money and throw it at the feet of James, Durant, Andrew Wiggins or whoever the next transcendent star ends up being.

But they can’t, which brings us back to tampering.

Absent the opportunity to pay stars their true value, the NBA has become the sports equivalent of seventh grade, with everyone trying to sidle up to the popular kids to make sure they’ll come to the right birthday party.

In the old days, when the salary cap was full of loopholes and you could pay a player anything you wanted, money was the ultimate currency.

Now, it’s everything from sunshine to off-court opportunities to who you can get to join you on your play date. The coming together of the 2011 Miami Heat was the biggest tampering campaign of all time, with Dwyane Wade beginning his recruitment of James and Chris Bosh at the 2008 Olympics. Wade and the Heat couldn’t offer more money, but they could offer South Florida, no state income tax and the chance with win.

Deal.

Some teams are getting creative about their ‘cheating’. The Washington Wizards have hired David Adkins as an assistant coach. His last job was as the assistant coach with the University of Maryland women’s team, which is not typically a fast track to the NBA. But before that? He was the assistant coach of Durant’s high school team. More subtle than Drake calling out to Durant from the stage at a concert, but the intent is the same.

According the Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, James “reached out” to Kevin Love of the Timberwolves to encourage him to join him with the Cavaliers. This is tampering, but since the NBA typically only acts when another team lodges a formal complaint, don’t expect a fine. The Timberwolves know they’re going to lose Love, so if James can help drive the market for their franchise player, all the better.

Expect more tampering in the future, not less.

After the 2011 lockout, the NBA tightened up the length of the contract teams can offer players – five years for their own guys and four years for free agents – while the players maintained the right to have player-friendly early termination options.

The outcome has made for the frothiest player market in sports.

Shorter contracts with more player options and an equal opportunity salary structure means superstar player movement will be the constant, never-ending subject that drives every trade deadline, draft and free agency discussion from now until the end of time.

It’s helped make the NBA off-season nearly every bit as exciting as the time of year when games are actually being played.

Everybody wins.

With nothing really to lose, Drake should take the $25,000 fine he earned and the rare penetration he helped the Raptors make into the NBA’s summertime consciousness as a sign to keep up the good work.

If I’m him, I’d write a song about Kevin Durant, and pay him a bajillion dollars to shoot the video at his house while wearing the Raptors hat he used to rock when he was a kid and a Vince Carter fan.

There is plenty to gain, and absolutely nothing to lose.

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