LOS ANGELES — Earvin "Magic" Johnson probably tampered by the letter of the law. Just two months into the job as president of the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson made an appearance in April on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live!
"I had to go to school. I had to go to CBA school, salary-cap school and tampering school," Johnson replied. "You can't tamper with somebody else's player."
It was Kimmel's follow-up question that seems to have led Johnson astray.
"What constitutes tampering? Like if you're on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?" Kimmel asked.
"No, we're going to say, 'Hi,' because we know each other," Johnson replied. "Just can't say, 'I want you to come to the Lakers,' even though I'm going to be wink-winking like..."
Johnson gave an exaggerated wink, laughed and shook hands with Kimmel, saying, "You know what that means, right?"
So while he never quite said it outright and was responding to Kimmel's scenario, Johnson all but spelled out on national television the Lakers want George rather than declining to comment on the player who was under contract with the Indiana Pacers at the time.
It was good television, but Johnson may need to revisit "tampering school" as his comments, explicit or not, may have represented a breach of NBA protocol.
The Pacers, in particular, did not find the bit on Kimmel amusing. They've since filed a complaint with the league in response to the segment, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.
In a statement on Sunday, the NBA announced:
"At the request of the Indiana Pacers, the NBA opened an investigation into alleged tampering by the Los Angeles Lakers. The independent investigation is being conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The Lakers have been cooperative and, at this point, no findings have been made. We have asked both teams to refrain from commenting while the investigation is ongoing."
The Lakers, in turn, responded with their own statement from Alison Bogli, the team's director of media relations: "As the NBA's statement made clear, we cannot comment about the specifics of any ongoing investigation. We can confirm, however, that we are cooperating fully with the NBA in the hope of clearing our name as soon as possible."
The questions the NBA will be looking to answer thus appear to be if the Lakers, via Johnson, tampered, and if so, to what extent?
As article 35A, section (f) of the "Constitution and Bylaws of the National Basketball Association" reads (via the Orange County Register, with some minor edits for readability):
"(f) No person may, directly or indirectly, (i) entice, induce, persuade or attempt to entice, induce or persuade any Player who is under contract to...any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services or negotiate or contract for such services or (ii) otherwise interfere with any such employer-employee relationship (or prospective employer-employee relationship in the case of a Player subject to exclusive negotiating rights)."
"Tampering" can include something as simple as a public statement about another team's player, or it may be far more insidious, with a franchise working behind the scenes to actually lay the groundwork to land that player.
Johnson's potentially ill-advised comments would represent the former. If the investigation can find the latter, the Lakers could be in significant trouble. The league could bar George from ever signing with the team. Here are more specifics from the NBA bylaws (emphasis mine):
"[If] the Commissioner determines that the anti-tampering rule has been violated, he shall have the power, in his sole discretion, to impose a penalty for such offense, which penalty may include (without limitation) the suspension of such person for a definite or indefinite period; the prohibition of the Member employing or otherwise affiliated with the offending person from hiring the Player tampered with for a definite or indefinite period; the forfeiture of Draft picks...or the transfer of such Draft picks to the aggrieved Member; and/or the imposition of a fine upon the offending person and/or the Member employing or otherwise affiliated with such offending person in an amount not to exceed $5,000,000."
Kind of a big deal. The likelihood of Johnson's comments costing them George isn't great, but the chances of obtaining George may be jeopardized.
If he did overstep his bounds on Kimmel, Johnson's comments can be compared to Phil Jackson's in 2014 when Jackson was president of the New York Knicks. Jackson was fined $25,000 after he identified Derek Fisher as a coaching candidate for the Knicks while talking with the media. At the time, Fisher was under contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder as a player.
Johnson's recent comments were made to a wider audience, but even if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver considers it 10 times worse than the Fisher incident, the Lakers would be able to absorb a $250,000 penalty without it derailing their plans in free agency.
This public form of tampering isn't entirely uncommon.
The Hawks sent out a letter via email to season ticketholders that read, "Player interest is skyrocketing as the possibilities of landing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard become more and more of a reality."
Then-Kings coach Mike Malone said Paul would "look pretty good in a Sacramento Kings uniform."
If Johnson is found to be tampering, the best case for the Lakers is a similar penalty that hits the team's bank account exclusively.
The worst case would include investigators proving the franchise actually reached out to George's agent, Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency, in an effort to map out a path to bring the All-Star forward to Los Angeles.
The Pacers would be due significant remuneration, presumably arguing the Lakers negatively impacted George's trade value. Indiana dealt him in early July to the Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Further, the NBA could essentially remove Johnson from his position entirely (and indefinitely). The Lakers could be blocked from ever acquiring George, penalized up to $5 million and forced to give up draft considerations.
Before the NBA completed its investigation, the two teams were able to work out a settlement that saw Miami pay out $1 million and a first-round pick to New York.
For the Pacers to gain any traction, they need investigators to find some sort of smoking gun beyond the Kimmel appearance.
Mintz also represents Lakers forward Julius Randle and former Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell. It's not enough to simply establish contact between Los Angeles and Mintz.
If the Lakers were foolish enough to communicate about George with his agent in writing, be it text or email, they're going to face significant punishment—deservedly so.