Knicks ‘tampering’ penalty for Jalen Brunson shows NBA has nothing better to do

Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images /

The NBA has a problem on its hands, and the New York Knicks are the latest team to face punishment. First Shaq and Chuck calling them out, and now this?!

The NBA actually has a number of problems; from the devaluation of the regular season to policing player conduct to negotiating a new CBA to their capitulations to China, among other things. There’s a lot for them to juggle and plenty of places screaming for their attention.

One issue they don’t really have, but continue to try and convince everyone of anyways, is “tampering.” More specifically, teams talking to pending free agents before they are technically free of their previous contracts. This is how it works!

The New York Knicks got a slap on the wrist from the NBA league office

Every team in the NBA does this. If they were to wait until the “legal tampering” period begins, teams would find themselves left standing in the cold while all of the major free agents signed deals during the first few minutes of business.

Over the past few seasons, the league has decided to make a public show of clamping down on this. Last season they penalized the Chicago Bulls for negotiating early with Lonzo Ball, and the Miami Heat for doing the same with Kyle Lowry; both players were ultimately added via sign-and-trade.

Now, this season it’s the Knicks feeling the “wrath” of the league in response to their signing of former Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson. The NBA announced Wednesday afternoon that the Knicks were found to have violated the league’s rules on free agency discussions and as such would lose their 2025 second-round pick.

Per the league: “This outcome reflected a finding, following an investigation, that the Knicks engaged in free agency discussions involving Jalen Brunson prior to the date when such discussions were permitted.”

Yeah, they certainly did. And they weren’t the only ones.

Did the Knicks technically go outside of the league’s rules? Yeah, just like 98% of the cars on the Interstate go 10 miles over the speed limit. When you pull onto the highway you don’t decide to be the one slow car, you match the flow of traffic. The trick is keeping pace with the other cars — not the speed limit.

The speed limit and the tampering rules are functionally the same; they are meant to be an anchor, not a hard cap. The tampering rules are in place not because the league expects them to be followed but because they keep teams from going too far past that line in negotiating with players still under contract.

The Knicks got a slap on the wrist because the NBA knows it doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on. If this mattered to them, they would institute harsher penalties; instead they decided to step in because this one “looked worse” than other signings. Part of that is because the Knicks hired Rick Brunson, Jalen’s father, to their coaching staff. Yet Rick played for the Knicks when he was in the league and served with Thibodeau at other stops. It’s entirely feasible to think the Knicks could have hired Rick even if Jalen wasn’t a borderline All-Star and a pending free agent.

The Dallas Mavericks certainly aren’t innocent victims here. They had multiple opportunities to pay Brunson, even at a number well under what he ultimately signed for, and chose not to. In the end, Brunson decided he was heading to the Knicks. Was that because of tampering? Perhaps, but it’s not as if Dallas’ hands were tied the entire time.

Do the Mavs miss Brunson? Of course they do! He has been incredible for the Knicks, averaging 20.4 points and 6.3 assists per game for a team in sixth place. The Mavericks, on the other hand, are 16-16 and in ninth place in the West.

The Knicks would gladly have paid another second-round pick to get Brunson, which makes this penalty seem especially weak. When you factor in the Knicks still have 10 second-round picks in the next seven years, it becomes even less than a slap on the wrist.

This wasn’t a real penalty, and the Knicks didn’t do something the rest of the league isn’t doing. The NBA needs to decide what it actually cares about and what it doesn’t, and clearly lay out/enforce that line.

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