Sorting Out the DeAndre Jordan CarnivalScott Halleran/Getty Images
The DeAndre Jordan saga, the most ridiculous 12 hours in NBA history, was objectively funny. The phrase “refuse to exit his home” was used in a literal sense to describe what was happening in an NBA free-agency courtship.
Blake Griffin tweeted a photo showing a chair propped up against one of the doors in (presumably) Jordan’s house, outside of which Mark Cuban, Jordan’s agents at Relativity Sports, and sad bro Chandler Parsons may have been waiting plaintively. Parsons started the Great Emoji War of 2015 by tweeting a plane, signifying that he and the Mavs were heading to Jordan’s place. Mike Woodson — MIKE FREAKING WOODSON, a guy whose eyebrows once vanished — tweeted an emoji of a man swimming.
Paul Pierce apparently doesn’t know how to tweet emojis — neither do I — so he just tweeted an image of a rocket ship. The Cavs tweeted a frog emoji, and then a coffee cup emoji, and I just don’t care enough to figure out what that means.
Jeremy Lin, for a brief moment perhaps the most famous basketball player in the world, signed with the Charlotte Hornets during the height of the Jordan hostage situation — and literally no one cared.
The whole thing was incredible.
It also felt a little embarrassing. This is a $5 billion business. Dozens of people made huge life choices after Jordan, way back on July 3, told the Mavericks he would sign their four-year, $80 million max contract. The Mavs committed tens of millions to filling the roster around Jordan, other starting centers agreed to sign with other teams, and the pool of quality players dried up. Three days after saying “yes” to Dallas, Jordan told the Clippers he was having second thoughts, according to several league sources. Five days after that July 3 “yes,” he was in lockdown, ghosting the Mavericks and playing cards.
The NBA loves how frenetic player movement dominates the news cycle, but does it really want billion-dollar franchises rising and falling on broken promises? For the endgame of Dirk Nowitzki’s career to hinge on whether a 26-year-old center answers his cell phone, or whether J.J. Redick beats Cuban to Jordan’s front door? It was carnivalesque.
In one sense, all that happened on Wednesday is that a man changed his mind about a job he accepted under a pressurized timeline. I’ve done that. An NBA player does it every few years. And it’s not as if other segments of corporate America are above grotesque, desperate recruiting practices.
But the NBA enables this chaos by rushing into a half-formed free-agency netherworld in which deals mean everything and nothing. Agents and teams can start negotiating at the stroke of midnight on July 1, but players cannot actually sign contracts until July 9. The interim period of fake deals is known as “the moratorium,” and it exists for two reasons:
1. The league and players’ union count up all the revenue from the prior fiscal year. This ends on June 30 and is used to project next season’s revenue, and those figures are used to generate the salary cap number.
That process is even more horrible than it sounds. The two sides spend a lot of it arguing over how much money goes into the pot that players and owners split 50-50 — whether players get a share of the proceeds from every random bit of arena sponsorship and signage. That takes time, and it used to take much longer. People are still buying jerseys on June 30.
It was fitting that as Jordan’s saga ended, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo reported that the 2015-16 salary cap would be set at $70 million — well above the projected $67 million. Teams had been negotiating deals without knowing the cap figure.
Do you realize how crazy that is? The Suns traded three players to open up cap space for LaMarcus Aldridge, only it turned out they might have only had to trade two. Teams flirting with tight cap squeezes — San Antonio, Atlanta, and others — couldn’t be sure how much margin they really had.
2. A protracted free-agency period theoretically gives more teams a chance to get into a room with a player. Suitors create drama. Remember being shocked that Phoenix had crept up on San Antonio in the Aldridge race, or that Toronto was randomly getting a meeting with him? The league likes that stuff, and a built-in delay gives more teams the chance to argue for a pitch meeting. Free agency would be boring if players signed prearranged deals right away. Hell, teams were frustrated that Khris Middleton didn’t take any meetings this time around.
The moratorium would serve a purpose in this sense even if the league could crank out a cap figure by July 1.
This system has always teetered on the edge, and Jordan’s unprecedented five-day backtrack has exposed the uncertainty baked into it. The logical next step is for every team to ignore publicized verbal agreements and work to poach free agents who have already entered into them. That sounds fine in theory — a free market at work! But in a league of finite cap money and roster spots, no one can make decisions if they don’t have faith in the decisions that come before. Could Memphis snag Brandan Wright on a three-year, $18 million “agreement” if Wright thinks there’s a chance Jordan might get cold feet about the Mavs — and open up a spot for him? And what does that mean for the Grizzlies’ incumbent center, Kosta Koufos — and for the Sixers and Kings, who negotiated the trade that opened the cap space for Sacramento to sign Koufos?
Every decision flows from a previous one, and if they’re all empty whispers, the system collapses. Cuban will go crazy, and he’s right to do so, but he has no legal recourse, per several league sources. He never had a deal with Jordan. That’s why I don’t blame the Clippers for going hard after Jordan once he indicated his regret. They behaved rationally within the system.
One potential solution: Ban all talks until the end of the moratorium on July 9, so that when talks start, they can lead to enforceable, signed contracts right away. The NBA used a version of this system a long time ago, but the league ditched it because agents and teams talked anyway. They still do today. In explaining Jordan’s proto-move to Dallas, Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com wrote that during the season, “A few teams around the league started to quietly send out signals that, were Jordan to entertain the idea of playing somewhere other than with the Clippers next season, they’d be interested in his services.” You don’t even have to read between the lines to see the rule-breaking. Do you notice that whenever a player declines an option for the following season, he always signs a deal that pays him more?1 That’s not an accident. That’s an agent canvassing teams ahead of time, searching for a fail-safe, and taking the appropriate next step depending on what he finds.
In other words: You can fire the starting gun on “real” free agency whenever you’d like, and there will still be verbal agreements hashed out beforehand. And you can bet some of those agreements will leak into the news, setting off a quieter version of the same dealmaking frenzy we just experienced over the last week.
That brings us to a simpler solution popular among team executives: Finish the damn audit on June 30, set the cap, and start real free agency — signings and everything — on July 1. Kill the moratorium. There would still be some back-channeling ahead of July 1, but since all players are technically under contract through June 30, such pre-free-agency chitchat would fall much more clearly under the league’s tampering rules. If some free agent were to switch teams at 12:01 a.m. July 1 without taking a single meeting, it would raise huge red flags.
Teams in this scenario could act with more certainty if a player were to commit only to a verbal agreement. When a pen is available, a verbal agreement carries much less weight, and teams can pivot to plan B.
This isn’t a perfect fix. It’s unclear whether the union and the league could actually finish the audit by June 30. Some executives have suggested they could start earlier, estimate the last few weeks of revenue, and spit out a pretty accurate projection by the end of June. The union has historically opposed any tweak that would include more murky projections, since the league houses most of the revenue data; the union has feared a scenario in which the league uses that data advantage to artificially deflate the cap number.
Killing the moratorium might also result in more free agents signing right away, without opening up the bidding to more teams — and dragging things out for the insatiable NBA media machine. That’s an issue of both competitive balance and straight drama.
Again: I have no idea if things would play out that way. Players are curious and smart. They like to think about different cities and teams. They like seeing what’s out there for them. I’m not convinced that vaporizing the moratorium would accelerate free agency in a way that robs it of drama.
Maybe the best solution is just to shrink the moratorium to three or four days, so that a flip-flop like Jordan’s wouldn’t prove so fatal to a team in the Mavs’ position. Because that’s the first of several takeaways here:
• Dallas is screwed. They weren’t a contender with Jordan, but at least they had a road map for the next few years. They have about $18 million in cap room, no one to spend it on, a coach that has no interest in rebuilding, and a beloved 37-year-old superstar vacationing in Europe. If your first response to something like this is “Call Kevin Seraphin’s agent!,” it’s all over for you in the Western Conference.
Back when Cuban was celebrating Jordan’s arrival, he admitted that the Mavs were ready to tank had Jordan spurned them. The Mavs have a huge incentive to tank: They owe Boston a first-round pick via the Rajon Rondo catastrophe, but Dallas keeps the pick if it falls within the top seven. The Mavs, with a paper-thin roster, are paying the price for a decade of punting the draft to chase free agents and expensive veterans. Can you imagine how we’d regard them if they didn’t win the title in 2011? Sending Boston a low lottery pick is their nightmare scenario — one that’s real enough today to make Danny Ainge’s trove of trade chips look a bit beefier than it did when Jordan was a (fake) Maverick.
Dallas is a lottery team right now. Toss in Portland and we’re guaranteed two new entrants into the Western Conference postseason bloodbath. Barring another injury disaster, Oklahoma City will reclaim its rightful spot. But Utah and Phoenix are happy right now, and if the win-at-all-costs Kings can get off to another hot start, they might have a fighting chance.
Rick Carlisle does not want to tank. Will he see this through? Dirk Nowitzki does not want to tank, and can’t afford to waste one of his last remaining years on a bad team. He doesn’t want to leave Dallas, either. Can we just put him in a cryogenic chamber and wake him up next July, when the Mavs could try (again) to lure two impact free agents?
Parsons can opt out after this season, and if the Mavs really want to tank, they should think about dealing him for a first-round pick.
• If you want more drama, you should root for Dallas to hit Enes Kanter with a max offer sheet. The Thunder are only $2 million below the tax, so matching a max contract would cost them the equivalent of almost $40 million. Only three teams have the room to offer Kanter north of $15 million: Philly, Portland, and Dallas. The first two don’t seem interested — both have a ton of bigs already — and Dallas couldn’t survive defensively playing Kanter and Nowitzki together.
The Thunder may be ready to dig in with Kanter, as the Suns did with Eric Bledsoe’s restricted free agency a year ago. Every bit of savings matters. The Thunder could lighten the load by dealing D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak, and Perry Jones III, and you can bet the remaining teams with some cap room are watching.
• Speaking of drama: How great is the first Clips-Mavs game in Dallas going to be? Who will draw the job of hitting Jordan with a flagrant foul? Do not count out J.J. Barea.
• This is not a good day for Dan Fegan, Jordan’s agent. On draft night, the Mavericks selected Satnam Singh with the 52nd pick — a massive guy who no one thinks can play in the NBA. Fegan’s agency represents Singh. The league rolled its eyes — another Cuban-Fegan job. The two men are tight, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Cuban has signed a pile of Fegan clients, and he made a run at another one, Dwight Howard, two summers ago.
He didn’t get Howard, but a year later, Cuban wooed another Fegan client: Chandler Parsons. The Rockets let Parsons out of his contract a year early, and it’s widely known around the league — and yet never said on the record — that Houston did so as a repayment for Howard signing there.
I don’t know exactly how Fegan handled Jordan’s free agency. Only a few people do. People with the Clippers whined that Fegan had cost Jordan money by steering him away from his incumbent team — the team that can always offer the most. But the cap jumps coming in 2017 and 2018 had warped those traditional incentives. Jordan could have signed with Dallas, opted out after three seasons, signed a new max-level deal, and made more than he could have on the five-year max signed with the Clippers today. He could make the most going that same route with the Clippers,2 which is why he signed a four-year max deal with a player option in the final season, per Ken Berger of CBS Sports.
The optics here aren’t great.
• The West got another title contender back, though after their meltdown against Houston, the Clippers have to prove that they belong with the Spurs, Warriors, and (maybe) Thunder. They have the pieces to do that, especially since they no longer have to trade Jamal Crawford — provided Steve Ballmer is ready to eat a big tax bill. They need to fill out the frontcourt and think hard about making what had been a crisis response — playing Griffin some at center — into a regular feature.
Now, let’s all pretend this never happened. Or remember it forever in our hearts. I can’t decide.