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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Proportionality Of Fines

(originally published elsehwere)

Last month, the Knicks signed Phil Jackson to a $60 million, five year contract to become their team president, chief roster builder, figurehead and mainstay.

This week, Jackson was fined $25,000 this week for 'tampering' Derek Fisher.

Fisher is still under contract to the Thunder until the end of the month, and while the media are deciding which team he is going to join after this season, and whether it will be in a front office or coaching role, Fisher is still a contracted player. For a member of another team to talk about or at least infer the possibility of luring him to their team, then, is tampering.

Tampering is a not particularly well understood piece of terminology in NBA parlance, at least to outsiders. It is in its basic form the act of a representative of one team coercing a contracted member of another to join their team without the permission of the contracted party's current team. Tampering happens rather a lot, but tampering punishments do not, because tampering is pretty much impossible to prove. Jackson was punished quite easily, because his comments were made in public on tape in front of dozens of viewers. But Jackson was not punished very severely.

$25,000 seems like a lot of money. $25,000 is enough to live on for a year anywhere in the world. $25,000 is about 2,500 times more than what I would get if I sold all my worldly possessions on eBay, even in their original packaging. $25,000 is almost enough for a brand new Kia Sportage, with its nuanced compromise between body control, handling response and ride comfort. But $25,000 is not a lot when you are on a $60 million contract, earning $12 million a year. Even if this $12 million is halved for tax, $25,000 represents 0.42% of Phil Jackson's salary. It is not enough to hurt him. And he probably knew that going in.

When Miami were found to be tampering with Pat Riley, then of New York, way back in 1995, the league allowed the teams to settle the matter internally, allowing Miami to send the Knicks $1 million and a 1996 first round pick (which later became Walter McCarty) as a settlement. That dwarfs Jackson's punishment, of course. But there is a difference between fragrantly trying to get a coach or player from another team to break a contract without permission, and speaking directly yet indirectly about possibilities. The latter is what Jackson did.

Maybe Jackson mistakenly spoke out of turn, a minor rookie error for someone who, no matter how long they have been in and around the league, is nevertheless new to the job. This is likely how he responded to the charge, at least - he even acknowledged his inability to talk about Fisher immediately before going on to talk about Fisher.

But alternatively, perhaps it is a gamble. It is a ploy by a man known for his ploys. If Jackson truly believes Fisher is the man who will right his very wonky ship, then the most important thing for him to do is show Fisher how desired he is. Show them love and respect, and they'll listen to you. That is the human way. And while this cannot be done blatantly in an open media session, seeds can be sown there. "We are aware of Derek's candidacy, we are aware of his connections with Los Angeles, yet we will still want to talk to him." We're coming after you, Derek, and these people all now know it. And in that simple gesture, a seed was sown.

If that seed is not allowed to be sown, there ought be a deterrent. A fine equivalent to a $100 fine for a man earning $25,000 is not much of a deterrent at all. Indeed, this is an issue with regards to other aspects of NBA policing.

When players are suspended, they lose 1/110th of their annual salary for each game missed. This is the rare instance by which a punishment is tied to the player's particular salary. In other instances, however, fines are a fixed rate. A $5,000 flopping fine is a $5,000 flopping fine, regardless of how much the flopping player earned that night. Same with a fine for a technical foul, and, while technically the amount of fine for a flagrant foul is at the discretion of the commissioner, there is little variance in how much those fines are for.

This can lead to rather absurd situations, such as those experienced by Brooklyn's Jorge Gutierrez, where a player is fined almost all of what they earn. Gutierrez - at that time on his second ever NBA contract, a 10 day contract paying $28,834 - was fined $15,000 for a flagrant foul in a game against the Bobcats, thereby gobbling up most of the salary he had received prior to that time and an amount equivalent to that which he had earned the previous six months of the season in the Developmental League. Because of one clumsy play, then, Gutierrez was largely playing for free.

Surely, if you want a fine to be a deterrent and/or a punishment, the person being fined must feel deterred and punished. Given the variation in salaries, tying the amount of a fine to the amount that player or executive earns is a logical step. If salaries are not standardised, why are amounts of withheld salary? The offense may be the same if Gutierrez or Garnett does it, but the punishment isn't.

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