What To Make of Sixers Tampering Accusations

FILE – Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden gestures during the first half of Game 3 of the team’s NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, May 6, 2022, in Philadelphia. A person familiar with the situation said Harden chose not to exercise his $47.4 million option for next season and will become a free agent — but with no designs on leaving Philadelphia. Harden made the decision to allow the 76ers the flexibility they need to sign other players this summer, said the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side confirmed those plans publicly. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

The Sixers have had a near flawless offseason. Daryl Morey successfully worked the margins and made some notable upgrades to the bench and supporting cast while bringing back the core of last year’s team. However, there may be a hitch in the offseason process:

The Facts of What Happened

After months of people questioning if James Harden was the same player he once was and an overall disappointing postseason performance, the former MVP elected to take a pay cut. Harden declined his $47.4 million player option and signed a two-year deal worth $68 million with the second year as a player option. To some, this was a selfless move to endear himself to the franchise and city and put the team in a better position to contend. To others, the belief is there has to be more going on behind the scenes.

With the money that Harden left on the table, the Sixers were able to sign PJ Tucker to a three-year deal worth about $33 million. They also added Danuel House to a two-year deal with $8.4 million with a second year as a player option and Trevelin Queen on a non-guaranteed deal. They also traded Danny Green and the 23rd overall pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for De’Anthony Melton.

The Accusations

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

“One of the central elements of the league’s inquiry includes questions on Harden’s decision to decline a $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 and take a pay cut on a new two-year, $68 million deal, sources said. Around the league, there have been questions about whether there is already a handshake agreement in place on a future contract — which would be in violation of collective bargaining rules.”

The article also indicated that Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey has already begun answering questions from NBA attorneys. It is important to note that teams were not allowed to have any conversations with players or agents prior to free agency opening at 6 PM ET on June 30th. Both Tucker and House previously played underneath Morey and next to James Harden with the Houston Rockets and agreed to the maximum deal they were allotted based on the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions they were signed under.

The NBA has been attempting to take tampering more seriously in recent years. Last year the NBA investigated the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat for their premature negotiation for Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry. Both teams were stripped of a second-round pick as a result of the investigation. The NBA also raised the maximum fine up to $10 million and opened up the possibility of suspending team executives and even voiding contracts. The Milwaukee Bucks were also punished with a loss of their 2022 second-round pick for tampering charges surrounding their attempt to sign Kings restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic despite him electing to sign with the Atlanta Hawks.

What this Means for the Sixers

There are two different issues the Sixers will be addressing in this investigation. The most obvious is the signing of P.J. Tucker. The 37-year-old was one of the more prized free agents in this year’s class due to the toughness he can bring and the seamless fit he is on just about any contending team. His attitude, versatile defense, and ability to knock down corner three-pointers are expected to elevate the Sixers in a major way this season.

The reality is the Sixers are likely guilty of this, as are many teams across the NBA. There were rumors floating of the contract the veteran was set to sign with Philadelphia prior to the opening of free agency. The precedent that has been set for this has been sacrificing a second-round pick and fine. It is worth noting the Sixers hold two second-round picks in next year’s draft.

On a more serious note, there has been a great deal of speculation about what Micahel Rubin stepping down as a minority owner of the Sixers has meant. While Rubin has always been more publically present than he has been influential within the organization, his relationship with James Harden has certainly been relevant to the point guard’s desire to play in Philly.

Rubin recently sold his 10% stake in Harris Blitzer Sports Entertainment which owns the Sixers and New Jersey Devils. The main concern among Rubin was avoiding potential conflicts of interest with his main business stake as he serves as the executive chairman of Fanatics, a wildly successful sports-merchandising business that is looking to expand into the gambling space and athlete sponsorship deals. Rubin understood it was in his and the company’s best interest to remove himself from his position with the Sixers and has been vocal about this being the reason.

While any linkings of a James Harden pay cut and potential sponsorship deals tied to Rubin are purely speculation, this is certainly a can of worms the league would prefer to stay shut. Rubin is one of the most connected people in the sports and entertainment space. It has been theorized that he is in a better position than ever to help the Sixers due to him not being under NBA rules.

Numerous league executives have backed up this thought, and one anonymous high-ranking business executive put it, “He’s the biggest player in our business. Nobody has the relationships that he does. Nobody can connect with people on both the ownership side and player side like him. And in a player-run league like the NBA, I really do think he can be a competitive advantage.” 

While this is a fair concern among other NBA teams and one the league will surely watch closely, the reality is a team cannot be punished based on the theories or concerns of other organizations. There will need to be some sort of concrete evidence of wrong-doing for The NBA is sure to do their due diligence, and the Sixers seem likely to receive some sort of punishment.

However, the gray area of the rules of negotiation in NBA free agency has become increasingly frustrating. This has been a league-created issue and one that their inconsistent stance on when punishment occurs and when they look the other way has caused problems. Even this year, there has been no attention paid to the New York Knicks, who sent personnel to watch Jalen Brunson play for the Mavericks during the postseason and even hired his father this offseason before signing him to a lucrative free agent deal.

The NBA still has a great deal of work to do in cleaning up its tampering problem. Unfortunately, the Sixers may find themselves on the wrong side of this and be an example for other organizations.