Highly coveted center DeAndre Jordan didn't violate the letter of the NBA's free-agency rules when he decided Wednesday to stay with Los Angeles Clippers and back out on the verbal commitment he made a few days earlier to the Dallas Mavericks. But Jordan's flip-flop is being received caustically inside and outside the NBA community as an ethical breach -- even an act of cowardice -- that could lead to rule changes.
From the moment word leaked out Wednesday that Jordan had reached out to Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers in a phone call, prompting Rivers to launch a full-on recruiting war to get him back, Jordan's saga was easily the most bizarre free-agency story in sports since the Summer of LeBron five years ago.
The difference? The way team execs lined up to make their pitches to James like planes stacked up at LaGuardia was all scheduled above board, and nary a detail leaked out until the day James finally revealed his decision. But much of the Jordan fiasco played out in great detail, sometimes in real time via online posts by his Clippers teammates as the tide was turning their way.
Blake Griffin and Chris Paul abruptly cut short their vacations in Hawaii and the Bahamas, respectively, to join the Clippers executives and teammate J.J. Redick, who were also descending on Jordan's Houston home to finish flipping him. Which they did, basically keeping him under house arrest, playing cards and ordering takeout food while Jordan froze out not just Mavs owner Mark Cuban, but his own agent, Dan Fegan. Jordan was said to be hurt Paul didn't like him more. He was said to fear his actual best friend on the team, Griffin, would bolt himself by 2017. Jordan's mom was apparently influencing where he should go, too.
It was so wild, it conjured up memories of the old AFL-NFL talent wars and the skulduggery that was used to hide players until they could be signed.
Cuban said Jordan refused to take his calls or texts for two days before signing with L.A. a minute after the clock struck midnight Wednesday.
So, what does an ethicist have to say about that?
"This is surely an interesting one," said Richard Lapchick, who runs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, among other things, and established Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society before that. "On the one hand, I always admire players who stay with a franchise that they played for. Loyalty in sports is too rare today. In that sense, I am glad DeAndre is staying with the Clippers.
"But on an ethical level," Lapchick continued, "his verbal agreement with the Mavs makes his decision to not honor the deal an unethical decision. I don't think his not talking to Mark Cuban is really as relevant as his going back on the verbal agreement. From an ethical point of view, reneging on a verbal contract is really no different than reneging on a signed deal."
Lapchick isn't alone with his take.
"From an ethical point of view, reneging on a verbal contract is really no different than reneging on a signed deal." Richard Lapchick, sports ethicist and human rights activist
Former Memphis and Portland front office executive Tom Penn, now an analyst for ESPN, blasted Jordan's professionalism and values Thursday.
"Look, I don't begrudge DeAndre Jordan for following the rules, taking his time and deciding what he wants to do," Penn said. "This is what the rules are designed to do. ... However, all this blaming of your agent, cowardly not picking up the phone and at least giving the courtesy to Mark Cuban of telling him 'no' in person, he should be criticized for that, let's face it.
"If he literally did not respond to dozens and dozens of texts, refused to even talk to them after, you know, just earlier in the week he physically hugged everybody, he looked them in the eye, he said, 'We're in this together, build around me.' And then he leaves without even the courtesy of looking them in the eye and saying, 'I'm sorry'? That is something that is flat inexcusable. That's not his agent's fault. That's no one else's fault."
Another NBA front-office executive was adamant when asked if reneging on verbal commitments or gentlemen's agreements is more common in contract negotiations or trades than the public ever knows.
"No. No. No," the exec said. "I have never, in all the years that I've been involved with free agency, ever seen anything like this. It's a big deal."
Jordan actually isn't the first NBA player to back out on a verbal commitment. In 2000, Eddie Jones spurned the Chicago Bulls after mixed-message gestures such as giving the team a wish list of other free agents he'd like them to sign. In 2006, John Salmons said he backed out of a deal with Toronto and went to Sacramento instead because God told him to. (Salmons didn't clarify if it was God who also noted that -- Hallelujah! -- the Kings' deal was worth $2 million more.)
In 2009, Hedo Turkoglu reversed field on the Portland Trail Blazers to sign in Toronto. Carlos Boozer has long insisted he doesn't deserve a spot on the flip-flopper list even though he left Cleveland for Utah in 2004 under disputed circumstances. Then-Cavs GM Jim Paxson insisted they had a handshake deal for Boozer to return. Boozer essentially said, "Did not."
Still, none of those players -- not even Boozer -- were as coveted as Jordan. The team that didn't get Jordan -- the Clippers or the Mavs -- knew its offseason would be a bust. In fact, in the first few days when the Clips thought Jordan was a goner, Redick was so upset he didn't even bother to censor himself during a radio show appearance when asked what kind of grade he'd give the Clippers' offseason to that point.
"Is there an F-minus?" Redick asked.
Now it's the Mavs who are devastated.
"It leaves Dallas hanging by their thumbs," the active NBA executive said. "They lost their center [Tyson Chandler] to Phoenix to make room for Jordan. They put all their eggs in this basket to make room for him. Now, he's not coming and all the other [best] big men are signed. ... The Mavs' long- and short-term hopes have unraveled.'
"I guess now I'm wondering if this isn't going to change the NBA's rules of free agency by next year, to prevent things like this."
It will certainly be discussed.
One of the reasons the NBA has the signing moratorium, which is usually seven to nine days, is the league needs time to calculate and its new salary cap and luxury tax line for the coming season.
The NBA released that information Wednesday, announcing that the 2015-16 cap will be a higher-than-expected and league-record $70 million.
But the cap bump isn't likely to soothe Cuban, who promised in a social media post addressed to Mavs fans Thursday morning: "There will be a time when I detail everything I know regarding the last 48 hours. I don't think the time is right to say anything beyond the facts that he never responded to me at all yesterday."
This is safe to say: Even Cuban, a notorious free spirit, wasn't among those laughing along at the "nah-nah nah-nah nah nah" tone of the photos and emoji Twitter updates the Clippers' posse kept triumphantly posting once they had Jordan under house arrest. Griffin tweeted a photo of a chair propped under what was presumably the knob on Jordan's front door -- preventing anyone from entering.
Jordan's first trip to Dallas next season now figures to be must-see TV.
At least he knows the players' union has his back. In a statement to ESPN on Thursday, Tara Greco, a spokesperson for National Basketball Players Association, emphasized that he'd violated no rules: "The moratorium period exists for both players and teams to thoughtfully weigh and consider options before signing any contracts. ... There is risk to both players and teams for the other party to change his mind during discussions.
"We all walk into these conversations understanding that as with any business contract, it's not a deal until the paper is signed."
That last assertion might hold up in court. But right now, Jordan is taking a beating in the court of public opinion.