Report: NBA looking at Magic Johnson in Lakers/Paul George tampering investigation

Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka watch a game at the NBA’s 2017 Las Vegas Summer League. (Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka watch a game at the NBA’s 2017 Las Vegas Summer League. (Getty Images)

A scant six months after taking the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers as the franchise’s president of basketball operations, franchise legend Magic Johnson now finds himself at the heart of a tampering investigation. Let it never be said that Earvin has not thrown himself into the gig with gusto!

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The NBA confirmed Sunday that it has “opened an investigation into alleged tampering by the Los Angeles Lakers,” at “the request of the Indiana Pacers,” as first reported by veteran NBA scribe Peter Vecsey. Shams Charania of The Vertical reported that “the investigation centers on” All-Star forward Paul George, whose agent reportedly informed Pacers brass two months back that he planned to join the Lakers when he hits unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018. Faced with the prospect of losing their franchise centerpiece for nothing next year, the Pacers instead chose to trade George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis.

So what, exactly, do the Pacers want the NBA to investigate? “The possibility of impermissible contact” between Johnson, who ascended to the post of president of basketball operations with the Lakers in February, and George, a player who until last month was still under contract with Indiana and who’s supposed to be off-limits for other teams’ executives, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

If the league office’s probe can prove that the Lakers tampered with George while he was under contract with Indiana, they can be punished in several ways, including a loss of draft picks, fines up to $5 million, future restrictions on acquiring George and possible suspensions of offending officials.

If the NBA finds evidence that the Lakers had engaged in a side agreement with George, he could be prohibited from signing a free-agent deal with Los Angeles or being part of a trade to the Lakers. […]

Team officials aren’t allowed to make contact with players or their agents to discuss future plans unless it’s after the opening of the players’ free-agency year on July 1.

The NBA said in its Sunday statement that the Lakers “have been cooperative and, at this point, no findings have been made.”

“As the NBA’s statement made clear, we cannot comment about the specifics of any ongoing investigation,” the Lakers said in a Sunday statement. “We can confirm, however, that we are cooperating fully with the NBA in the hope of clearing our name as soon as possible.”

If you’re finding it a bit tough to believe that Magic never had any interactions with George that might have pushed up against the boundaries of propriety, it’s probably because you’re a fan of ABC’s late-night talk-show programming.

During an April visit to ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Johnson spoke with host Jimmy Kimmel about the steep learning curve he faced as he took over as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, and about the players he hoped to import to help turn around the fortunes of a franchise that has gone a combined 91-237 over the past four seasons.

“I wish I could talk about all those guys,” Johnson said.

“But you’d be contract tampering now,” Kimmel said.

“Exactly,” Johnson said. “[…] I had to go to school. I had to go to [collective bargaining agreement] school, salary cap school and tampering school. Yeah, you can’t tamper with somebody else’s player. I had to learn the new CBA that we have.”

“What constitutes tampering?” Kimmel asked. “Like, if you’re on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?”

“No, we’re going to say hi because we know each other,” Johnson said. “I just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’m going to be wink-winking like [exaggerated winking motion, followed by laughter]. You know what that means, right?”

Yeah, Magic. Everybody knows what that means, which is why it’s awfully easy to believe that there had been some improper contact between Johnson (or one of his emissaries) and George (or one of his representatives). The burden of proof’s significantly higher in an official inquest, though:

Article 35A of the NBA’s constitution and by-laws lays out the rules on tampering: nobody affiliated with an NBA team is allowed to directly or indirectly “(i) entice, induce, or persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any player, coach, [general manager] or other person under contract to any other NBA team to enter into negotiations for or relating to that person’s services or to negotiate or contract for such services, or (ii) otherwise interfere with the employment relationship between that employee and the other NBA team.”

Similarly, Article XIII of the 2017 collective bargaining agreement between NBA teams and players covers “circumvention” — attempts to players, teams, agents or other parties to skirt the boundaries of the CBA and player contracts. That includes “any agreements or transactions of any kind” — public or secret, explicitly stated or merely implied, oral or written, promises or assurances of “understandings” — between a player under contract with one team (or anyone acting on the player’s behalf) and another team (or anyone affiliated with the team).

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, though, in the absence of a clear paper trail, it’s awfully tough to prove the existence of a back-room deal or the intent to enter into one … even if such agreements are much more common than anyone at the league office would care to admit. From The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor:

“[Lakers general manager and former NBA player agent Rob] 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.” […]

“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.”

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It’s much more likely, then, that the Lakers will face either no penalty or a slap-on-the-wrist fine — like the ones assessed to the Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets in 2013, and the Toronto Raptors in 2014, after public comments related to other teams’ players — than that LA will be forced to fork over draft picks. All of which might leave you wondering: what exactly is the point of all this?

George is gone; the Pacers aren’t going to get him back, or get anything more for him than the return they secured by shipping him out one year early (much to the chagrin of Dan Gilbert). Players aren’t going to stop recruiting one another, whether by social media, phone calls and text messages, or back-channel communications. Executives and agents aren’t going to stop having the sorts of before-the-fact conversations that result in free-agent deals being agreed to at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 — and, increasingly, being reported in the final hours of June, before the summer free-agent market officially opens for business. It is “how this league works,” and everybody knows it, just like everybody knew what Magic’s wink meant.

On some level, you can understand the Pacers feeling compelled to try to extract a pound of flesh after being put in a difficult position by George telling them he planned to head west. (Though, to be fair, it’s a predicament Indy wouldn’t have faced had Larry Bird flipped George in February rather than holding onto him after publicly testing his market, which seemed to turn him off.) Now, though, with the deal done, George getting ready for a new campaign in Oklahoma City, the Pacers preparing to rebuild around Oladipo and Myles Turner, and Magic and company still sitting tight and waiting for next summer, you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better off for Indy to just charge it to the game, take the L and move on. Getting the Pacers pointed in the right direction for the future figures to be difficult enough without expending energy dwelling on the past.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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