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Let’s Stop Pretending the NBA Cares About Its Tampering Rules

Magic Johnson is being investigated for having impermissible contact with Paul George, but the Lakers president was just playing the game the rest of the league has been playing for years now

Paul George and Magic Johnson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One year ago, when detailing the Lakers’ failure to land a meeting with Kevin Durant last summer, an NBA executive asked ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne why Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss hadn’t “spent [the] last eight months on this.” In February, Shelburne reported that Kupchak was the only GM in the league who didn’t engage Durant or his representatives until free agency began at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1. And if he wouldn’t sacrifice his integrity for a player of Durant's caliber, you can bet he didn’t for any of his other potential targets.

When it came to free agency, Kupchak scribbled inside the lines while everyone else was spray-painting on the walls, and Los Angeles suffered. The new Lakers front office of Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have caught up to the rest of the league’s typical tactics—allegedly, at least.

The Pacers have filed tampering charges against the Lakers for impermissible contact with Paul George, the NBA confirmed Sunday after Peter Vecsey first broke the story late Saturday. The Lakers denied the allegations, and in a statement the NBA said that “at this point, no findings have been made.” Vecsey reported that the independent law firm hired by the NBA asked the Lakers “to turn over any correspondence pertaining to [George’s agent Aaron] Mintz and George, as well as his parents.” No matter what the NBA finds—or doesn’t—one thing is obvious: The NBA tampering rules are a complete joke. July 1 being marked as the start of free agency is nothing but a formality. You and I know it because we read the news: Players fly across the country for meetings scheduled for 12:01 a.m. and agree to contracts within minutes. Players recruit each other on social media. The way this often works is agents “indirectly” backchannel information from one party to another.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.” The only difference between what teams usually do and this is that a complaint was filed, and the league must investigate. It’s possible that Magic slipped somewhere with an incriminating text or email. After all, he even went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and joked about tampering.

Tampering is hard, if not impossible to prove. “If there’s a paper trail, then it’ll be a thing,” said one league executive, adding he doubts there were any distinct emails or texts that implicate Magic. “No paper trail, no problem.”

Tampering has existed for decades, though the league has gotten more lenient on players “recruiting” one another. Players use social media to recruit players on other teams, which is fine unless the “tampering” player is doing an owner’s or general manager’s bidding. When C.J. McCollum posted a photo of Carmelo Anthony in a Blazers jersey, he theoretically could have been acting on the orders of general manager Neil Olshey. Danny Ainge could have put a spell on Isaiah Thomas, forcing him to openly recruit Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, and Blake Griffin over the past two summers. Bob Myers might’ve been looking over Draymond Green’s shoulder when Green sent a “We need you. Make it happen,” text to Durant after losing to the Cavs last year. But where’s the proof?

As Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann wrote in an extensive piece in June, to investigate player conversations would likely “be both futile and an invasion of privacy.” The same is also true for executives, however. Every source I’ve spoken with would be surprised if any concrete evidence is found. If there is proof the Lakers are guilty of tampering, though, the punishment could be severe: a fine of up to $5 million, the forfeiture of draft picks, suspensions for any offending persons, or even restrictions that prevent them from acquiring George in 2018.

I gotta admit: I don’t care if the Lakers tampered. And if they are guilty, I hope the NBA doesn’t lay down the hammer with a severe, over-the-top punishment simply to make an example of them. Fine the guilty participants, sure. Even take away a few second-round picks. But preventing George from signing with the Lakers would be a laughable extreme. The last thing Adam Silver should do is channel Roger Goodell—or even David Stern, who would not sign off on a potential trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers while Stern was serving as the Hornets' ownership representative in 2011.

Speaking of Paul: He was traded by the Clippers to the Rockets days before free agency began. How exactly would Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have known Chris Paul wanted to sign with Houston? Have predictive analytics advanced that much already? “Every team is looking for an advantage,” an executive told the Los Angeles Times. “The deal got done way too fast for somebody not to be talking already.”

Not to mention that tampering might’ve indeed helped the Clippers. Had Paul entered free agency and outright signed with Houston, Los Angeles would’ve been left with nada. Instead, the Rockets sent back a big trade package that included Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and a protected first. If there was “tampering,” it worked out for everyone. “I don’t want to use the ‘T’ word—tampering—but we all don’t play by the rules when it comes to making deals,” an NBA executive said in June to the Los Angeles Times. “Besides, nobody is going to rat anybody out. That’s how this league works.” Tampering is accepted across the league since it can’t be regulated. Rules are broken across sports, across leagues, across all levels of play. If tampering was reviled by most of the league, the penalties and definition of tampering could’ve been amended in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. This is how the league works.

Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript reported the Pacers planned on filing a tampering charge even before trading George to the Thunder. Even though tampering is the norm, you can at least understand why they went ahead with it. George-to-L.A. rumors have been floated around for years, Magic gets on TV and jokes about George, and Mintz told the team his client wouldn’t re-sign in 2018. Plus, in 2016 George reportedly purchased a $7.4 million mansion in Los Angeles County’s Hidden Hills. Maybe George really was moving out of Indiana this summer. Indiana has a right to be angry that its star player might’ve been pulled westward, though Pacers owner Herb Simon should be more angry about his franchise accepting the garbage trade offer of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis ahead of free agency, rather than waiting for objectively superior offers.

Unless evidence is found, it’s unlikely the Lakers will be severely punished based on recent history. Magic’s “wink-wink” joke on Jimmy Kimmel Live! simply isn’t enough to lay down the hammer. (In 2013, the Hawks, Kings, and Rockets were all merely fined for tampering. The Hawks referenced Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in an email to season ticket holders; then–Kings head coach Mike Malone mentioned how Chris Paul would look good in a Kings uniform; the Rockets published a free-agency preview that discussed players under contract with other teams.) In 2014, Raptors global ambassador Drake was fined for asking a Toronto crowd to show Kevin Durant what it’d be like to play for the Raptors. With that said, the NBA should take the opportunity to draw the tampering line in permanent ink, regardless of the outcome of the investigation.

Magic and Pelinka have changed the Lakers culture in ways you wouldn’t expect. Their alleged approach to recruiting stars may have just gotten flagged, but it’s a risk worth taking. It sure beats waiting until July 1 to make action happen.