The most shocking aspect of the NBA's investigation of the Los Angeles Lakers for tampering with former Indiana Pacers forward Paul George is not that the league found enough evidence to slap the Lakers with a $500,000 fine.
It's that the Pacers requested an investigation at all.
This is not the first time a team has been investigated for tampering, nor is it the first time a team has been found guilty and fined, a league official told B/R. It's simply the first time the league has publicly acknowledged it. The Cleveland Cavaliers threatened to ask the league to investigate if there was tampering when LeBron James left them for the Miami Heat, league sources say, but ultimately, the team conducted its own private inquiry.
All that said, investigations are rare. Acts of tampering, as defined in Article 35 of the league's constitution and bylaws, are not.
The dirty little secret when it comes to how the league functions, though, is that tampering occurs all the time. Teams refrain from demanding an investigation because they accept it as part of the business and they don't want to be held to the same standard.
"If you're not cheating by the letter of the law," says one former GM, "you're not trying."
Adds a current Eastern Conference GM: "You don't get free agents without it. [Tampering] is what the whole league is built on. That's the only way you can get anything done."
That's why the executives contacted by B/R were surprised the Pacers demanded an investigation by the league at all. One called it "bush league." Several others opined that the Pacers must've had some hard-proof evidence. Almost all presumed owner Herb Simon was simply too irate about George's proclamation that he would leave in free agency to let him go quietly.
While there have been previous instances where teams were upset they lost a star player and suspected the recruiting process began well before his contract officially expired, most have swallowed their anger rather than draw added attention to the fact they were spurned or invite similar scrutiny.
"You better be careful what you ask for," says the former GM. "That kind of disclosure becomes a two-way street. You sure you want the league to look at every phone call and email you've sent?"
There is a sense around the league, though, that an informal agreement on what constitutes bending the rules vs. brazenly breaking them has been lost. It has long been accepted that teams and agents are going to contact each other to explore their respective interests, regardless of the time of year or a player's contract status. To assure that conversations between Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Creative Artists Agency agent Aaron Mintz, who represents both George and Lakers forward Julius Randle, remain strictly about Randle is almost impossible. What is to stop Pelinka from expressing interest in George to Randle, who could then relay the information to Mintz or directly to George?
Tampering with presumptive free agents has long been self-evident and robust around July 1, when free agency officially begins. As one Eastern Conference GM pointed out, the reports of free agents agreeing to terms with new teams mere hours after free agency has begun makes it blatantly obvious conversations took place long before they were allowed.
"How many names flash across the ticker two hours after midnight saying they've agreed to a four-year, $64 million deal?" he asks. "You think that was negotiated in 10 minutes? If you're an agent and you wait until July 1 to find out what your client's options are, you're going to get fired. You'll be sitting there while your client's options are falling off the table."
A GM following the rules runs the same risk. Mitch Kupchak served in the Lakers' front office for 31 years, the last 17 as a GM with full control over player personnel matters. He was assiduous about keeping a low profile and operating as much by the book as anyone. Maybe the built-in lure of the Los Angeles market and playing for the Lakers spoke for itself, and that approach served Kupchak ably enough until the last few years.
After tepid swings and mighty misses on several free agents—LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, to name two—team president Jeanie Buss replaced both Kupchak and her brother, executive vice president Jim Buss, in February with NBA legend Magic Johnson and former agent Pelinka to run the team's basketball operations. Johnson first caught the league's attention when he joked about tampering with George on a late-night talk show. Pelinka, Kobe Bryant's former agent, was then cited for having improper contact with Mintz, which prompted the $500,000 fine.
"What hurt Mitch was he played strictly by the rules," one prominent agent says. "He would call you at midnight at the start of free agency and he'd be weeks or a month behind."
Some executives are upset that now, they say, select GMs are going directly to coveted players through their own players. It seems the unwritten rules are being rewritten.
"Before, it was just agents and front-office guys talking," another former GM says. "But now, the GMs are talking to their players and making them a partner in the recruitment directly with the other player."
While the league's rules clearly state that players are subject to the same anti-tampering restrictions as any other member of an organization, players not only violate the rule, in some cases they publicly brag about doing so. Warriors forward Draymond Green confirmed that he asked Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant to come join the Warriors the night Green and the Warriors lost Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. League sources say the conversation between the two began long before that. In any case, Durant did join the Warriors and there is no indication that Green received any sort of reprimand.
"There has always been varying forms of tampering, but there is a fine line and some have become blatant and feel they're above the rest," an Eastern Conference scouting director says. "You can push limits and still respect the rules and your opponents."
One executive said now there are teams that instruct their potential free-agent and trade targets who have indicated they may want to go elsewhere on what to say and how to act to expedite their current team's desire to move them—basically providing them with How To Piss Off Your General Manager for Dummies.
"Those are the guys who tell the player, 'Do these things so you're sure to get out,'" another Eastern Conference GM says.
A former GM insists he has pursued free agents who have lobbied him for benefits beyond a contract because they were being offered those by other interested teams.
"The thing that becomes egregious," he says, "is when teams are telling a player, 'We'll give you a condo and a Range Rover.' I'm going after that same player and he says, 'Are you willing to do anything for me?'"
Whether it intended to or not, the league created the opportunity for firsthand tampering on a major scale when it took over the USA Basketball Men's Senior National Team in 1992 with the creation of the Dream Team. Franchises quickly saw the value of having their personnel involved, no matter the position—player, scout, athletic trainer, head coach, assistant coach—because it gave them an unrestricted opportunity to cultivate relationships with some of the best players in the league. And those relationships might pay off when a player becomes a free agent.
"USA Basketball is institutional tampering," a former GM says. "I know the team I worked for wanted to be part of it. It's just too easy to say, 'Wouldn't it be cool to play together?' Players are tampering and so are coaches."
The $500,000 fine handed to the Lakers is not likely to dissuade any team from conducting what has become business as usual. League rules allow for teams to be fined as much as $5 million and have an unspecified number of draft picks taken away. Several executives posited that because Simon, a long-tenured and highly respected owner, demanded the investigation, commissioner Adam Silver felt compelled to hand down some sort of punishment, even if it was a token one.
"It's more symbolic than anything else," says a Western Conference GM. "It has zero effect."
One prominent agent went even further. Asked if it would serve as any kind of deterrent, he laughed. "Are you kidding me? It might enhance it. If it only costs $500,000 to take a shot at getting Paul George, I'd think every team might try it."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.