LOS ANGELES — LeBron James' comments on Anthony Davis weren't appropriate. By a strict interpretation of the rules, James tampered when he welcomed the notion of playing with the New Orleans Pelicans' All-Star big man.
"That would be amazing, like, duh," James told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com.
So did Giannis Antetokounmpo, who told Davis to join him on the Milwaukee Bucks, per Steve Aschburner of NBA.com.
Free agents are allowed to communicate with each other about teaming up. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern set that precedent back in 2010 when Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James chose to team up together on the Miami Heat.
"There is nothing here, at this time, that is causing us to launch an investigation," Stern said in a press conference in July of that year. "The three players are...within their rights to talk with each other."
But Davis is not a free agent, and public statements are not private conversations between players. Stern's precedent shouldn't apply here.
Pelicans general manager Dell Demps will let the NBA decide if James' comments were tampering, per Jennifer Hale of Fox Sports, but that was mostly a polite way of asking the league to step in.
Jennifer Hale @JenHale504
The @PelicansNBA response to LeBron's comment "It would be amazing" to play w/ AD if Lakers trade for him: GM Dell Demps tells me "Pels are leaving it up to League to determine if that qualifies as tampering. Pels have no intention of trading AD. Focused on winning in West now."
The actual tampering rule isn't collectively bargained between the league and the players union. Instead, it's written in the NBA's constitution itself. It's detailed in the misconduct section under Article 35(e): "Any player who, directly or indirectly, entices, induces, persuades or attempts to entice, induce, or persuade any player ...who is under contract to any other [team]" will be charged with tampering.
And the penalty isn't light. Should the commissioner choose to wield his power, he has the "power to suspend such player for a definite or indefinite period, or to impose a fine not exceeding $50,000, or inflict both suspension and fine upon any such player."
James and Antetokounmpo can afford such a fine, but an indefinite suspension is a bit harsh. Fans needn't worry; Adam Silver isn't going to ban two of the league's biggest stars. Instead, the league has all but adopted Stern's free-agent precedent, turning a blind eye to player-to-player tampering.
That's why James can say that Carmelo Anthony joining the Los Angeles Lakers would be "great" without anyone batting an eye. Meanwhile, the Lakers got hit with a $50,000 fine after team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson praised Antetokounmpo in February.
The commissioner has even greater latitude to penalize executives for tampering, with the max fine set at a stunning $5 million. But players are typically in the clear, unless Silver decides to set a new precedent this week.
Meanwhile, the player in question tried to defuse any speculation about his future.
"I don't really care," Davis told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe in reference to James' comments. "Obviously, it's cool to hear any high-caliber player say they want to play with me. But my job is to turn this team around."
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry also tried to shut it down, saying his team isn't going to trade its best player.
Steve Aschburner @AschNBA
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was clear tonight on speculation on his star's future: "We’re not trading him. I can say that to the world. We’re not gonna trade him, no matter what. That’s not an option. It doesn’t matter what anybody says or does. We’re not trading Anthony Davis."
But all of the pleading in the world isn't going to stop the speculation. Not until Davis accepts a "supermax" extension with New Orleans that projects to be worth $239.5 million over five seasons, anyway.
The Pelicans are the only team that can pay him that much. Should Davis choose to decline his $28.8 million player option for the 2020-21 season, the most he projects to get elsewhere is $152.2 million over four years.
He may not be asking for a trade now, but if he does decide to move on from the Pelicans, he would be able to make up some of his lost earnings if he's traded. Whichever team acquires him would have the ability to re-sign him for up to $205.3 million over five years. The $34.2 million difference between that and the supermax cannot be recouped, which is why New Orleans should still be considered the favorite to retain Davis. But that extra $53.1 million he can get by re-signing after a trade is why it's in his best interest to push the Pelicans to deal him to his preferred destination if he does want out of New Orleans.
"He doesn't want to come off as a bad guy," a former player and current NBA television analyst said. "He's got a squeaky-clean reputation and he doesn't want to get killed like [Kevin] Durant got killed."
Davis' decision to sign with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who is James' agent and business partner, seems to suggest the Lakers could be his next home. If Los Angeles is indeed the target, Davis will need to don the proverbial black hat and enable Paul to do his bidding.
Paul would have to scare off other suitors who might have better offers, threatening that his client won't re-sign anywhere but L.A. The Lakers would also need to generate some leverage, perhaps holding off on handing out long-term deals in July to ensure they have the necessary cap space to sign Davis outright in two summers.
Other than the agent tie to James, there's no indication at this point that Davis is willing to employ a heavy-handed strategy or that the Lakers are even his preferred destination.
For New Orleans, the challenge is getting equal value for its 25-year-old star. If the Lakers offered Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, the Pelicans would end up with a trio of promising young prospects, but none of them have MVP upside like Davis does.
If Davis wants out, the Pelicans may prefer to wait until the offseason when teams like the Boston Celtics can enter the fray. The Celtics cannot trade for Davis until July without unloading fellow "designated player" Kyrie Irving, but the Pelicans don't appear to be in any rush. If anything, they're holding out hope that Davis will take the supermax.
If the Lakers are Davis' preferred destination, it'll take a hard push to convince the Pelicans to give him up. How many young players would L.A. have to send back in return? If the Lakers are also chasing star players like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard with cap space, the numbers are tricky.
The combination of Ingram ($7.3 million) and Ball ($8.7 million) get the closest to matching salary for Davis ($27.1 million) in July, although that's still roughly $5.6 million short of what's needed. The Lakers would also have to include some combination of Kuzma, Josh Hart, Svi Mykhailiuk or Mo Wagner, barring a sign-and-trade including Lance Stephenson, Tyson Chandler or Ivica Zubac. The Lakers can pay Thompson or Leonard their max salaries and still get Davis, but Durant would probably need to come at a discount.
But how would that appeal to New Orleans? Unless Davis only wants to be a Laker and is willing to empower Paul to throw his weight around, listening to Gentry's pleading may make more sense.
Until Davis inks his supermax, the speculation about his future won't go away.