NBA PM: Implications of the Lakers Investigation

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In one form or another, the Los Angeles Lakers have often been the center of attention over the course of its existence as the franchise is arguably the most popular in the league. This has continued to be the case in recent years despite the fact that the team has has failed to make the playoffs since the 2012-13 season and has endured turmoil both on and off the court. This turmoil was created, at least in part, by the Lakers approach to free agency. The Lakers often swung for the fences, looking to land All-Star free agents without creating a supporting cast that would entice these particular free agents. It has also been reported that the Lakers failed to appeal to these free agents in their meetings, such as the case in their pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge.

Part of the blame lies with the previous Lakers management, which seemingly failed to understand that today’s star free agents want to play for a team that has the potential to win at a high level and that it’s not simply enough to use the franchise’s history and market as a sales pitch. However, with the hiring of Rob Pelinka (formerly a prominent agent) and Magic Johnson, and the removal of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers immediately reshaped their front office. With a well-connected former agent and a successful businsesman and charasmatic hometown figure in Johnson, the hope for Lakers fans is that the team could once again effectively draw the interest of star players. The player most Lakers fans have had their eyes on is Paul George.

Earlier this offseason, it was reported that George was planning on leaving the Pacers after this upcoming season and his preference was to play for the Lakers. Johnson would later make a guest appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show and discussed Paul George and the issue of tampering directly. Jimmy Kimmel asked whether Johnson has had to have training regarding tampering and offered a hypothetical scenario involving Johnson having a conversation with George. Johnson, perhaps inappropriately, joked that he wouldn’t be able to tell George to play for the Lakers, but he would be “winking” at him.

This cheeky acknowledgment served as a funny moment, however, it also puts the Lakers in an uncomfortable position. Peter Vecsey reported last week that the NBA has opened an investigation into the Lakers franchise for potentially tampering with George, whom was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this offseason.

Last Sunday,  Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne followed on Vecsey’s breaking news with a report that included a response from the Lakers.

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

In addition, the report states that the investigation is specifically centered around impermissible contact between Johnson and George. The law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz will independently handle the investigation with cooperation from the Lakers franchise. The firm will be looking at e-mails, text messages and other potential correspondence for proof of actions that may amount to tampering. The next question is, what rules are teams and their employees supposed to follow?

Let’s look at the official NBA Constitution and By-Laws for guidance. The NBA Constitution states under Article 35A (f) that, “No person may, directly or indirectly, (i) entice, induce, persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade, any Player who is under contract to, or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by, any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services[.]” This straightforward language brings up both direct and indirect actions to acquire the services of another “Player” that is under contract. In this instance, George is obviously that player. While the burden of proving tampering is high, a few direct messages from Johnson to George with unambigious language regarding a deal for George to join the Lakers in the future would be problematic for the franchise. It should be noted that as of this writing, there have been no findings from the league.

The next question is, what consequences could there be if the Lakers are found to have tampered with George? The NBA Constitution goes on to state that if “the Commissioner determines that the anti-tampering rule has been violated, he shall have the power” to impose the following penalties: “the forfeiture of Draft picks […] or the transfer of such Draft picks to the aggrieved Member [franchise]; and/or the imposition of a fine […] not to exceed $5,000,000.”

Is there precedent for this? Back in 2013 the NBA handed out punishment to the Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets. While not all details were released, it was reported that the Hawks were fined for their part in mailing out letters to prospective season ticket holders, which specifically mentioned the possibility of signing Dwight Howard and Chris Paul (who were still with the Lakers and Clippers, respectively) in free agency, which had not yet begun. The Kings were fined for comments their coach made about Paul as well. The Rockets were also fined for actions amounting to tampering.

In 1995, the NBA had been investigating whether tampering had occurred with Head Coach Pat Riley regarding his move from the New York Knicks to the Miami HEAT. Specifically, the league looked into whether there had been inappropriate contact between Riley, still under contract with the Knicks, and the HEAT. Before the NBA could potentially dole out any punishment, the two teams came to a deal that included the HEAT receiving $1 million and the HEAT also giving up a first round pick to the Knicks. In fact, the Lakers have had to combat implications of tampering themselves. In 1996, the Lakers signing of Shaquille O’Neal was met with celebrations in Los Angeles and frustration in Orlando. After having lost their star center, the Magic made public their suspicion of tampering by the Lakers. However, the implications did not lead to an official investigation and ended without any punishment of the Lakers franchise.

Should the Lakers be worried over this current situation? There should be some level of concern now that the situation has progressed to the point where the NBA has confirmed an investigation is underway with a law firm handling the matter. Of course, it’s possible the investigation ends with no firm evidence of wrongdoing being uncovered and no discipline being enforced as was the case with the O’Neal signing.

As the NBA Constitution above indicates, if some kind of wrongdoing is found there is a range of measures that can be enforced both in the form of punishment for the Lakers and compensation for the Pacers. These punishments can also include preventing George from signing with the Lakers as well as suspensions for the individuals involved. There is a high burden to make a finding of wrongdoing, but now we know that funny moment on the Jimmy Kimmel show may not be that funny after all.