Was NBA Justified in Fining Clippers After Doc Rivers Comments About Kawhi Leonard?

Was the NBA's action to fine Doc Rivers and the Clippers $50,000 for violating the NBA's tampering rules while talking about Kawhi Leonard appropriate? What action should other coaches and executives in the league take in the future when in similar situations? 
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In the late 1990s and in 2003—the year between his head coaching gigs with the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics—Doc Rivers was a highly-respected TV commentator for Turner Sports and ABC Sports. He was praised for his candor and insightfulness when discussing NBA players.

Rivers displayed that same commanding style while appearing on ESPN on Tuesday. Rivers joined Magic Johnson, Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon in a panel discussion on the NBA finals. During the discussion, the conversation turned to Toronto Raptors star swingman Kawhi Leonard. The 27-year-old former San Antonio Spurs star has taken his game to another level in the 2019 playoffs. He is also set to become a free agent on June 30.

As shown in the video above, Smith asks Johnson whether Leonard is currently the best player in the NBA. Johnson opined that if Leonard leads the Raptors to a title, Leonard would have to be considered one of the NBA’s top three, along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Johnson went to explain how Leonard excels at both offense and defense. He then remarked, “What we really love, Doc, is that he plays both ends of the court and he always makes the right read.”

Johnson, in other words, prompted Rivers to comment about Leonard right after Johnson had offered high praise.

Rivers, as a commentator, didn’t disappoint. He went so far as to compare Leonard to the greatest player in NBA history, Michael Jordan. "Kawhi is the most like Jordan we've seen,” Rivers opined. “There are a lot of great players—Lebron is phenomenal, KD is phenomenal—but, not that he is Jordan or anything like that, but he is the most like him. Big hands, post-game, can finish, great leaper, great defender, in between game, if he beats you to the spot bump you off and then you add his three-point shooting.”

The conversation made for great TV. It was as if Rivers had once again become a TV commentator and had once again shared with viewers his unique and engaging perspectives.

But there was a problem. Rivers isn’t a commentator. He’s the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers and under NBA rules, coaches can’t comment about players who are under contract to other NBA teams. Such comments can be perceived as impermissible overtures or unsanctioned inducements.

Article 35A of the league constitution makes this point explicitly clear. It applies to coaches, general managers and owners, among others. Article 35A defines tampering as any attempt to entice, induce or persuade a person who is under contract with another team to join the tampering team.

It’s long been said that “flattery will get you everywhere” and, conversely, that “flattery will get you nowhere.” In the NBA, flattery will get a coach in trouble. Adulation counts as tampering since it can influence a player’s employment decision. In a league with a collectively-bargained salary cap and max salaries—and thus one where teams sometimes can’t outbid each other—a coach offering the highest praise to star players can be particularly swaying.

Magic Johnson seemed to set Doc Rivers up for a problematic response

Johnson, of all people, should have known better than to guide Rivers into commenting so favorably about Leonard.

While appearing on ESPN last year in his capacity of president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson’s effusive comments about Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo led the NBA to fine the Lakers $50,000 for tampering. Johnson, one of the greatest players in NBA history and a Lakers star during the 1980s and 1990s, compared Antetokounmpo to how Johnson used to play. Johnson detected similar traits with respect to Antetokounmpo’s “understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates.” “That's where,” Johnson observed, “we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I'm just happy he's starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he's going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he's going to put Milwaukee on the map.”

A year earlier, Johnson attracted the NBA’s attention when, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he acknowledged that he wanted his Lakers to sign Paul George. The Oklahoma City Thunder employed George at that time.

It's possible that Johnson only directed Rivers to comment about Leonard upon command from an ESPN producer. Johnson, then, might not be responsible for prompting Rivers to discuss Leonard.

Regardless, the question put Rivers in a tough spot during a TV interview. To be sure, it would have been awkward for Rivers to say something along the lines of, “I appreciate the question, Magic, but I can’t comment since as you know Leonard is under contract to another team.” Still, that type of response would have been a better one than to gushingly link Leonard to Michael Jordan.

NBA coaches should avoid situations where they are asked to publicly comment about other teams’ players

A more fundamental issue from the Rivers interview on ESPN is why Rivers would agree to go on a TV show to discuss other teams’ players. Rivers, 57, is hardly a rookie when it comes to the business of NBA basketball. He fully knows about league rules and the league’s longstanding concerns about tampering. As a player, broadcaster or coach, Rivers has been affiliated with the NBA since the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in the second round of the 1983 NBA draft. He went on to play 14 seasons in the NBA and has coached three different teams in the course of 20 seasons. He’s also the father to an NBA player, Austin Rivers. Put simply, Doc Rivers knew better.

Rivers should have also been particularly cautious when commenting about Leonard. The Los Angeles native is set to become a free agent on June 30. The Clippers, along with the Raptors, Lakers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are considered to have a legitimate chance to sign him. Rivers favorably comparing core aspects of Leonard’s game to those of Jordan could influence Leonard’s decision.

This point is especially concerning for NBA commissioner Adam Silver—as well as for executives of the Raptors, Lakers, Knicks and Nets—since Leonard will undoubtedly sign a “max” contract with whichever team he picks. The Raptors, as Leonard’s current team, can offer him a 5-year deal worth $190 million while other teams can offer him a 4-year deal worth $141 million.

In other words, the Raptors have a contract advantage and but for differences in state income taxes and perhaps endorsement opportunities, Leonard’s decision won’t be driven by money. He would get paid the same amount whether he signs with the Clippers, Lakers, Knicks or Nets. So, the “little things,” such as the coach of one of those teams comparing Leonard to the greatest player in NBA history, might make a difference in Leonard’s decision.

Also, given much-discussed concerns about possible tampering in teams’ plans to acquire New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, Silver and other league officials are especially sensitive to tampering. If a team uses tampering to recruit a star player, that team gains an unfair advantage over teams that play by the rules.

It’s not surprising, then, to hear Silver’s comments about his decision to fine Rivers. In remarks on Friday to The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn, Silver noted that “Doc’s been at this a long time.” Silver also acknowledged that he “understands the competing interests of the media in hearing a coach’s view about a current NBA player.” But Silver stressed that Rivers “crossed a bright line” and that a coach in that situation needs to say that he or she “is not permitted by the league to respond to that question.”

As to the punishment imposed, a $50,000 fine is obviously a lot money. But it is a relatively small amount of Rivers’s salary. Prior to signing an extension last month for undisclosed terms, Rivers had reportedly earned in the ballpark of $10 million to $11 million a year. Assuming he earns $10 million, a $50,000 fine would reflect one half of 1% of his salary. In addition, the fine was technically imposed on the Clippers, who are owned by billionaire Steve Ballmer. Again, $50,000 is not pocket change, but in this context it is an affordable expense. Plus, if the Clippers sign Leonard this summer, Rivers and the Clippers might privately regard it as money well spent.

Rivers and the Clippers are fortunate that the NBA’s punishment is not more severe. Under the league’s constitution, the maximum fine for tampering is $5 million. In addition, Silver could have suspended Rivers as well as strip the Clippers of draft picks and transfer those picks to the Raptors. The worst possible punishment, though, would have been to prohibit the Clippers from signing the target of tampering: Leonard.

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Associate Dean of UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law.