The Los Angeles Lakers are being accused of tampering again. Only, instead of team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, this time fingers are pointed at superstar LeBron James.
Multiple small-market GMs anonymously expressed their displeasure, via ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, with the NBA’s failure to enforce tampering rules that prohibit players from recruiting opponents, specifically as it pertains to LeBron’s response to a recent question about New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis. Several GMs reportedly shared their frustration with Pelicans GM Dell Demps, who declined comment to Wojnarowski about any inclination to formally complain to the league office.
“It’s New Orleans’ problem today, and a problem with a different player tomorrow for the rest of us,” one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN. “It’s open season on small markets and our players.”
“There is no confidence among most of us — if not all of us — that the league cares about protecting our interests,” one small-market GM told ESPN. “It’s hard enough already to hold onto the kind of players we need to try and win with — but [the league] doesn’t do anything to help.”
Today, it’s Davis, an MVP candidate whose 2020 free agency has already spawned incessant questions about potential landing spots outside small-market New Orleans. Yesterday, it was Paul George, an MVP candidate in Oklahoma City by way of Indiana whose 2018 free agency was preceded by a $500,000 tampering fine levied upon Pelinka for preemptive communications with George’s agent. Tomorrow, it is Giannis Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate in Milwaukee whose 2021 free agency led the league to issue a $50,000 tampering fine to Johnson for saying nice things about the Greek import.
The NBA made an example of the Lakers brass, who have repeatedly stated their intention to spend cap space on star players. Expressing that interest to players under contract or their representatives, privately or publicly, is a step too far and prohibited in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The league has been less stringent with players, despite rules prohibiting them from tampering, too:
Any Player who, directly or indirectly, entices, induces, persuades or attempts to entice, induce, or persuade any Player, Coach, Trainer, General Manager or any other person who is under contract to any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiates or contracts for such services shall, on being charged with such tampering, be given an opportunity to answer such charges after due notice and the Commissioner shall have the power to decide whether or not the charges have been sustained; in the event his decision is that the charges have been sustained, then the Commissioner shall have the power to suspend such Player for a definite or indefinite period, or to impose a fine not exceeding $50,000, or inflict both such suspension and fine upon any such Player.
Brazen tampering among players has increased exponentially in the social media age, when all it takes is an eyeball emoji to illustrate one’s interest in playing with an opponent. It’s practically an everyday occurrence, the most egregious of which was when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green allegedly placed a recruiting call to Kevin Durant from the parking lot following the 2016 Finals.
So, when LeBron merely responded to a question about the possibility of Davis joining the Lakers, telling ESPN’s Dave McMenamin on Wednesday, “That would be amazing,” it hardly seemed out of line. After all, Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving and Davis have reportedly discussed privately the possibility of playing together before, and Irving publicly heaped praise on Davis last month without any fervor.
LeBron and Davis now share the same agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, so if the former really wanted to recruit the latter, there are far more effective and discreet ways he could help convince Davis to join him in L.A. than responding to a reporter’s question. The ire expressed to ESPN by small-market GMs is most likely the result of watching star after star leave for bigger markets in free agency. It is an unfortunate fact of NBA life that is made more frustrating when a player with a voice as powerful as James on a team with a location as attractive as Los Angeles openly pines for a talent like Davis.
We should mention that Davis has expressed no interest in leaving New Orleans, and the Pelicans have showed no inclination of trading him. The noise has all been external, and it only grows louder when James gets involved — so much so that it will likely lead to internal discussion. It is that cycle that small-market teams are looking to break, an Eastern Conference GM informed Wojnarowski:
“Interference is as bad as tampering — maybe worse in this case. This becomes a campaign meant to destabilize another organization, install chaos and unrest that make it harder to keep an environment that the player would want to stay in. There’s no use in complaining to the league about it. We all get that it’s a players’ league, but there are rules on the books that they need to follow, too.”
On the one hand, it seems ludicrous that LeBron’s response to a reporter’s question constitutes tampering to this degree, and on the other, it does sound as if his comments violate the rule as written. The call here is to more clearly define what constitutes tampering by players, and the league took a small step in that direction by addressing Wojnarowski’s report through a spokesman.
“Each case is assessed on its own facts,” the spokesman said, ending speculation that LeBron may warrant a fine. “In general, absent evidence of team coordination or other aggravating factors, it is not tampering when a player makes a comment about his interest in playing with another team’s player.”
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