NBA AM: NBA Teams Love To Play The Gray Areas

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The Gray Areas

Over the last week, there has been a lot of talk about the Indiana Pacers allegations of tampering by the LA Lakers as it pertains to Paul George. The NBA has retained a third-party law firm to investigate the claims; the Lakers have both denied any tampering with George and are cooperating fully with the investigation.

The Pacers filed their complaint just around the draft, so this has been playing out for several weeks and was just recently made public by the venerable Peter Vecsey, who outed the report on his new Patreon account.

While it’s unlikely an investigation reveals any paper trail to tampering, the NBA in the past has sought e-mail and phone records to establish connections that could be deemed tampering. Given the inexperience of the Lakers new front office as operators of a team, it’s possible someone slipped up somewhere with a text message or e-mail. Given the vast experience Laker GM Rob Pelinka has on the agent side of the fence and the equally extensive experience George’s agent Aaron Mintz has, it’s doubtful either were silly enough to actually document some future plan.

That said, if you believe for a second that NBA teams are not looking for some inside angle to land a player they covet, you are sadly mistaken, which is why the outcome of this complaint is so important for the NBA.

By rule, a team is not permitted to have contact with a player under contract to another team until midnight on July 1. However, given the number of NBA staffers that co-mingle with agents, especially around the draft, it’s very common for teams to ask and for agents to answer in casual conversation. It’s also very common for frameworks or deals to be talked about and thought about well in advance of July 1st. In fact, it’s not uncommon for agents to establish meeting schedules for prime free agents for July 1st — the only way that can happen is for teams to talk to that agent before July 1st, which is technically a violation.

One of the big knocks on former Lakers executive Mitch Kupchak is that he wouldn’t play the gray areas of the rules, which often left the Lakers a day or two behind teams that worked the fringes of the rules to get that first meeting or that first offer in front of a free agent player.

Equally, players often make up their minds on where they want to be in advance of July 1, so it’s something of a formality to let the clock tick to midnight before accepting an offer; an offer that was likely constructed as a framework of a deal weeks before. That too is technically not permitted, but happens every summer.

The problem for the NBA isn’t that some things are happening just before July 1; it’s how far ahead some teams are trying to get not only in their recruiting, but also planning their cap for the future.

The Lakers, for example, need to make some roster moves to open up cap space if they are going to try and lure in George and a second max-level free agent (LeBron James?). For that to make sense, they would need some level of assurance they can obtain both before giving away roster talents like Jordan Clarkson and possibly Julius Randle. They will also need to move off of the contract of Luol Deng, which likely will require some inducement by the Lakers to get a team to take on that kind of contract money.

That is a big risky bet for the Lakers to make without some understanding from at least one part of the equation, which is likely why the Pacers believe they may have caught the Lakers getting ahead of the game. Even if the Lakers didn’t slip up, it seems likely that the Pacers ownership wanted to make the Lakers sweat a little too.

As much attention as this story has gotten, the idea of teams reaching out to test interest early is not a new thing. In fact, some teams use their own roster players as intermediaries to gauge interest. The most dangerous time for a team with a high profile pending free agent is the All-Star weekend, a time many in the league are comparing to college recruiting in how aggressively players are contacted about their plans for July.

The NBA ruled some time ago that they are not going to police relationships between players, despite there being very clear tampering language in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicked in on July 1. As a result, current roster players are allowed and encouraged to be the point guy. It’s pretty hard to pin tampering on a team, even if it seems more plausible than not, simply because there may never be any documented proof of that.

While the Pacers’ allegations of tampering may result in nothing substantive against the Lakers (if they were smart), it is still a reminder for NBA teams trying to gain a little extra edge that they have to be careful. The penalties the league can levy are real, including loss of draft picks, fines in excess of $5 million or, more importantly, the ability to block the offending team from signing the offended player. That may, in fact, be the end goal for the Pacers given how jilted they felt about how George handled all of this with them.

While it still unlikely the Lakers were silly enough to document something with Geroge or his agent, it is a look into how things get done in the NBA and a cautionary warning that there are consequences if you play too close to the gray areas of the rules.

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