According to NBA agents and executives, fans should have smoke detectors installed in their homes and web browsers while reading rumors during free agency, the draft, and the trade deadline.
HoopsHype spoke with five agents and two executives to learn how a smokescreen, a ruse designed to disguise their real intentions, is leaked during the busiest transactional points of the year.
“Every single executive does, and anyone who tells you they don’t is lying,” one former executive told HoopsHype. “You’re trying to steer people in another direction. All the narratives are total bullsh*t now.”
Rival executives and agents catch each other off guard in their offices as news breaks on Twitter. One executive recalled being stunned several times in his team’s war room during the trade deadline and draft while reading reports about his player and team.
“You just hope the people you’re dealing with are stand up people, but there’s always going to be somebody that puts out some complete bullsh*t that’s not true,” one current Eastern Conference executive told HoopsHype. “I remember saying to myself I’ve been in the room, and I know that was never offered or even presented. There have been situations like that where other teams or an agent will put out complete bullsh*t just to get reactions out of another team or the team that they want the guy traded for or whatever.”
Whether it’s a rival executive looking to stir the pot or an agent helping to shape the trade or free-agent market for his client, usually information is leaked with a purpose in mind.
“Sometimes, it gives you a competitive advantage to get you to where you need to be,” one agent with a decade of experience told HoopsHype. “The whole thing about this business, whether it’s on the basketball, media, or marketing side, is being in control and creating your own narrative. If you’re in a position to be able to do that, whether you’re twisting the truth or not, you could probably do it even after the fact if it doesn’t necessarily go in your favor or accomplish what you want at that specific time.”
Generally, there are three times when an agent will leak information for a smokescreen. One example is leading up to free agency to build a market and subsequent bidding war for the client. Another example is before the draft to steer a client towards a specific team or draft range to maximize his earnings. Lastly, when a player wants to get traded, as noted in a previous HoopsHype story on how players ask for trades.
“I would always utilize the media of building up a brand up until the free agency to develop their value,” one longtime agent told HoopsHype. “It may be in the context of a media person asking a pending free agent during the season if he plans on re-signing with his team and prepping with the player on how we’d answer it coyly, but with a little bit of a lead. Sometimes, even if you set it up, the answer is, ‘No comment,’ but at least it’s out there now. It pressures a team to think he didn’t give any sort of assuredness on this. We better think about how to re-evaluate this. You want to stir the pot a little bit, but not to the extent that you get pinned down by it either.”
Once the player is in free agency, an agent will try to squeeze teams for the most money they can get by leaking specific organizations who have expressed any level of interest in their client.
“Last year, I put out a team that had interest in my player during his free agency,” one agent bluntly told HoopsHype. “We knew the whole time we weren’t going there, but they had money and wanted him. We met with them a few times, so we knew it would make it believable to other teams. We used them as leverage.”
However, if an agent is not tactful with the smokescreen, it can severely backfire.
“It’s all about creating leverage,” another agent echoed when recalling negotiations for a restricted free agent several years ago. “A lot of these teams are going to do their due diligence and say, ‘That’s bullsh*t. That team doesn’t have the cap space to do this. They don’t have the assets to do this. This guy is f*cking lying.’
Executives also use the media to create leverage with their players and even call up some media members to send out a subliminal message.
One agent said there’s a team he’s dealt with several times that is notorious for putting out smokescreens in the media.
“They put smoke screen stuff in the media all the time,” the agent said. “Then, they’ll call you and say the media is always trying to pit us against each other. You can’t believe what the media is saying. Meanwhile, it’ll be them the whole time. They’ll call a media member, and then the media member will reach out to you.”
When asked how he knew the team was putting out a smokescreen regarding his client, the agent replied, “A reporter told me they reached out, and some of the stuff he had, there’s no way he would have that. I know they do it because the GM called me, and he told me to call a specific reporter and have him put out something about my player coming back to his team.”
That similar sentiment was conveyed by one of the executives during the trade season as well.
“On trades, there will be times where we’d have certain articles written about guys to make them look better than they are to generate interest without saying the guy is available,” one executive admitted to HoopsHype.
Agents return the favor by using smokescreens in the media to help get their clients out of town.
“You let them (media) know, and maybe somebody will write something and say this might be a good fit or say a player is interested,” one agent who has represented several All-Stars told HoopsHype. “Then, people start to talk about it a little bit.”
Here, the agent’s goal is to pressure a team by fleshing out why a player wants to be traded. One example is the reasons why James Harden wanted out of Houston.
“I’d get out there is a lack of confidence in management or a first-time head coach,” one agent said. “You’re not taking a direct shot, so it doesn’t personalize it to some degree, but essentially saying you can’t work with these people, or you want to win now, and my window is closing. It’s a little bit of a backhanded stab, but it’s not a direct cutting of the throat.”
Other times, an agent will put out a smokescreen to protect a player. One agent recalled such an instance during a pre-draft workout for a prospect in Atlanta.
“As soon as he hurt himself, we stopped the workout, and he didn’t do any workouts after that,” the agent said. “Because it was in a private setting and not in a team setting, we were able to withhold that information. I think that happens a lot with players and their injuries.”
Sometimes, an agent will put out a smokescreen that his player has a promise to go to a specific team in the draft as the reasoning for shutting down his remaining workouts.
Conversely, executives will use smokescreens to disguise their level of interest in a player they covet leading up to the draft.
“It’s used around the draft in terms of what players teams are going to see or not see and putting it out there,” one executive explained. “Who did they see twice, and who did they have a lot of phone interviews with? Depending on your draft position, you don’t want people to know who you really like. When you get into the draft, telling a reporter our second-round pick is available to generate some interest and let teams know who may want a second-rounder, call us, ours is available and drive the price up.”
“When you hear this team is high on this or this team is high on that, nine times out of 10, it’s a smokescreen,” the former executive explained. “It’s not that player.”
Related: How NBA players ask for trades: ‘It does get vicious. It’s a divorce’
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto