In December 2010, months after LeBron James’s defection from Cleveland to Miami, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert self-funded an investigation in hopes of launching a tampering case against the Heat. It was a ridiculously juicy story line centered around a massive star and a well-known executive, and it begged the question: Would Pat Riley and Miami be punished for successfully recruiting James, perhaps while he was still under contract with Cleveland?
Alas, Gilbert’s tampering claims never amounted to anything.
That’s standard for the NBA, where the league is virtually powerless to stop the most common form of tampering — player-to-player conversations — and it’s difficult to prove anything.
“My sense is everyone agrees that the current situation is silly,” one league executive said. “The rules are archaic and both difficult to enforce, and largely unenforced even when they aren’t as difficult to enforce.”
And when players can quietly lobby others on their team’s behalf, executive can be careful to avoid putting themselves in a position that could jeopardize their career.
“If a team GM were to blatantly get involved [in tampering], the downside could be enough to prevent them from working again,” one general manager said. “While I’m sure that may not stop everyone, it sure will be thought about, especially with all the risk and the likelihood of something coming out at some point.”
Which brings us to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, who find themselves in the midst of a tampering investigation over their hopes to eventually land Paul George. It’s again a juicy case involving one of the league’s best players and a well-known executive, Johnson, a five-time champion with the Lakers and the team’s new president of basketball operations.
The Indiana Pacers, after trading George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in June, initiated the investigation against the Lakers, whom George has made clear he would prefer to sign with when he can opt out of his contract next summer. The NBA, which confirmed the investigation earlier this week, is looking at communications by Johnson, the central figure of the league’s examination, and other team officials.
From the outside, the most obvious example of potential tampering was when Johnson — never shy in front of a camera — was asked on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier this year about what he would be allowed to say to George if the two ran into each other.
“No, we can say, ‘Hi,’ because we know each other,” Johnson said, flashing his trademark smile. “I just can’t say, ‘Hey, we want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’m going to be wink-winking. You know what that means, right?”
Still, it would be a surprise if the Lakers or Johnson get anything more than a slap on the wrist, or any punishment at all.
The NBA has hired an outside law firm to investigate the matter involving Johnson and the Lakers, meaning the investigation isn’t going to stop at that offhand comment. But proving more occurred will be difficult. The Lakers already employed two players — Julius Randle and the since-traded D’Angelo Russell — who are represented by George’s agent, Aaron Mintz from Creative Artists Agency. Any phone conversations between those two sides would be difficult to prove as nefarious and leading toward a future George deal.
Still, that “wink-winking” comment alone might be enough for Johnson, and by extension the Lakers, to be on the wrong end of a potential fine from the league. As one scout put it, “You can say that he was joking, but how is it any different than the president saying he’s joking on serious matters? Everyone sees right through it.”
Such a punishment would fall in line with previous cases involving public discussion of under-contract players. In a 2013 email that went out to season ticket holders, the Atlanta Hawks said they were planning to pursue Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in free agency, both of whom were still employed by other teams. The Hawks were fined an undisclosed amount. The Sacramento Kings were also fined at the time when former coach Mike Malone said Paul “would look pretty good in a Sacramento Kings uniform, without a doubt.”
In both cases, a team was openly discussing pursuing a player on another team — just like Johnson. But in both cases, it was equally clear it wasn’t a game-changing tactic.
Similar to Gilbert’s claim about the Heat, a pair of incidents involving the Brooklyn Nets earlier this decade focused on theories or hearsay, and ultimately amounted to nothing. Rival teams became convinced the Nets’ Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov was going to circumvent the rules, and that manifested itself when the Nets used their taxpayer’s mid-level exception in 2013 to snag versatile Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko for several million dollars less than he’d earned the season before.
At the time, rumors were rampant around the league that Kirilenko and the Nets had some sort of side arrangement to pay him more money than they legally could, but an NBA investigation wound up providing no evidence of any such deal. (Ironically, after all of the talk of Kirilenko’s signing, he wound up being a disaster on the court for Brooklyn, hardly playing at all in a year-plus with the team before being given away in a trade).
The only time a salacious tampering story has been proven true in recent memory was when the Minnesota Timberwolves were hammered for agreeing to a future contract with their own forward, Joe Smith, to give them immediate financial flexibility, a move which circumvented the league’s salary cap. The punishment was so severe — a $3.5 million fine, the eventual loss of three first round picks and suspensions for general manager Kevin McHale and owner Glen Taylor — that it likely deterred other potentially tampering cases.
The biggest reason these investigations largely go nowhere in the NBA is that teams really never have to put themselves in a position to be caught. With player-to-player conversations happening on a daily basis, chats that are impossible for the league to stop, why have the team’s general manager make a phone call that could get him in hot water when his star can do it for him?
There’s no better example of this than Draymond Green, who called Kevin Durant the night the Golden State Warriors lost Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers and implored Durant to join Golden State — which he did a few weeks later in free agency.
“Look, it’s a player’s league, and it’s always going to be a player’s league,” the scout said. “That’s never going to change.”
That’s also never been more apparent than today, when players are taking control of their futures in ways they never have before — like when George made clear to the Pacers through his representation that he has his sights set on Los Angeles.
That’s also why, barring a smoking gun that hardly ever materializes, it’s tough to expect a punishment for Johnson and the Lakers. That would leave the Pacers unsatisfied, but it would fall in line with how past cases have played out.