The Los Angeles Lakers don’t take tampering lightly. After all, it wasn’t long ago that they were fined $500,000 for tampering with Paul George (who didn’t even grant them the courtesy of a meeting in free agency), and then fined again when president of basketball operations Magic Johnson said that Giannis Antetokounmpo would one day lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship.
That’s right, Johnson praised the Bucks’ star for what he would do with Milwaukee and was STILL fined.
Now, the latest tampering complaint lobbed at Los Angeles flies even further into the realm of the ridiculous, even as the NBA has issued a warning to all teams that appears to be aimed squarely at Los Angeles. It seemingly stems from an original report of small-market general managers ‘expressing outrage’ over the league’s unwillingness to enforce their anti-tampering laws against the Lakers.
Their complaint? LeBron James was asked about potentially playing with New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis in the future. James responded with, “That would be amazing, like, duh. That would be incredible.”
That James, the NBA’s most popular athlete and one of the greatest to ever step onto the hardwood, would dare to admit that playing with another top-five talent is something that is appealing to him, is simply unforgivable to some, and they want heads to roll.
The question is, why? Yes, there are anti-tampering rules on the books, but enforcing them when it’s player-to-player is extremely difficult. Players hang out, become friends, and naturally, the discussion turns to work at times. That’s what happens when human beings form bonds; we tend to talk about the things that occupy large chunks of our lives.
Policing those discussions is impossible and futile, and if they tried it, Chandler Parsons would probably have to flee the country. But the NBA knows they can’t, so they don’t. Nevertheless the league did send out a memo addressing the matter.
What James said, however, wasn’t a private conversation. He answered a question from a reporter in the locker room, complimenting a player under contract with another team.
Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry acknowledged James simply answered a question but still maintained he clearly tampered. If Gentry is so convinced that James’ comments constituted tampering, then it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on where the line is drawn.
After all, the issue with tampering is that it, in theory, allows a team to gain an unfair advantage by recruiting a player that is still under contract with another team. In Davis’ case, he’s actually under contract for this season and next, but the Pelicans will almost certainly have to trade him if he decides not to accept a “super max” contract from them this summer.
So perhaps in Gentry’s mind, James comments are a nefarious wink to Davis, reassuring him through the media that the Lakers will be there, ready to trade for him, should he inform the Pelicans that he won’t be signing a new deal with them.
Never mind the fact that James, if he wanted to send that message, could do it without any trouble through Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who both he and Davis use as their agent.
Of course, it isn’t just Gentry that feels this way. That begs the question, where was their outrage when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were openly pining for James to jump to the Philadelphia 76ers last season? Or when the Clippers send swarms of representatives to maintain a presence at Toronto Raptors games, keeping an eye on free-agent-target-to-be Kawhi Leonard?
Leonard acts as though he doesn’t know Clippers president Lawrence Frank, which keeps the tampering police appeased. The Clippers are there. Close but not too close, making sure Leonard is aware of their interest at every turn. It’s difficult to imagine Johnson and Rob Pelinka getting away with the same tactic.
What’s developing through all of this is a very interesting definition of what is and isn’t tampering.
Based on how certain teams have reacted to the actions of others, tampering would appear to only apply if the player being spoken about has been linked to a team in a big market with a history of success, like the Lakers, and that the player in question is a superstar.
After all, no one seems to mind that James has spoken multiple times about playing with friend Carmelo Anthony, who is still under contract with the Houston Rockets.
Tampering is also apparently off the table if the action hurts the Lakers. As Spectrum SportsNet’s Chris McGee noted on Twitter, it was perfectly acceptable when Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant spoke out about why young stars, specifically mentioning Leonard, shouldn’t want to play with James in Los Angeles.
That’s doesn’t create an anti-tampering stir, apparently, because it negatively impacts the Lakers ability to land another star, which opposing teams don’t want to see happen.
Lest we forget, it was just last week when Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver refused to trade Trevor Ariza to the Lakers in part because of the negative reaction received when they waived Tyson Chandler, who has since become a key part of Luke Walton’s rotation.
Helping the Lakers, after all, is a big no-no, but sending Ariza to the middling Washington Wizards isn’t a problem.
Perhaps that dynamic isn’t much of a surprise. The Lakers have a long history of massive success, with 16 championships to their name and a who’s who of NBA stars in their rafters. That kind of success breeds resentment, and in a way, it’s a compliment.
Of course, there is another element at work here as well. The smaller markets are up to their old tricks again, playing the victim card when it’s advantageous. It’s noteworthy, after all, that it isn’t just the Pelicans whose feathers are ruffled by James’ comments; it’s “several small-market general managers.”
Davis landing with the Lakers, who play in one of the largest markets in the league, would only perpetuate the idea that the small markets are essentially feeder teams for the glitzy big markets.
The problem is that they aren’t feeder teams, and haven’t been for some time thanks to legislation that was created to prevent that from occurring.
The largest market in the league, the New York area, hasn’t seen the Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs for going on four seasons and the Knicks are even worse with a soon-to-be six-season playoff drought.
The Lakers, in the second-largest market, have missed the postseason for the last five years, and have essentially been snake-bit since David Stern, under pressure from the aforementioned small markets, gave his infamous “basketball reasons” veto of the Chris Paul trade.
The Clippers, despite recent spells of solid play, have spent the majority of their existence as the laughing stock of the league. The Chicago Bulls enjoy the third-largest market, and currently have the worst record in the NBA. You have to go all the way to the eighth-largest market to find the dominant Golden State Warriors.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs since 1997, sit near the bottom in terms of market size. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, all playoff-caliber teams currently, join them in the small market pool, as do the Pelicans.
In the modern NBA, the reality is that a well-run organization can compete regardless of market size. On the flip side, poorly-run organizations will flounder regardless of where they are located. Just look at how many free agents spurned the Lakers prior to Johnson and Pelinka taking over.
The sunshine, team history, and profitability can’t overcome the stink of mismanagement anymore. Of course, teams like the Lakers, even with revenue sharing (yes, the Lakers and other teams essentially pay their opponents to compete against them) bring in more money than their peers. A lot more.
But that’s part of why the salary cap system is in place. Los Angeles can’t simply outspend everyone else when it comes to acquiring talent. The playing field is leveled in that regard, and the rise of technology and the growing interconnectedness of our world has made it even more so.
With the reach of social media, a player can be a star regardless of the market they are in. It isn’t 1987, where being in a major city drastically changes the amount of sponsorship money a player can make. Which is exactly what the small market teams assure their free agent targets at every turn, promising stardom in Oklahoma City that’s on par with Los Angeles or New York.
Yet, they cry foul if a big market club looks to be on the verge of clawing their way back from the bottom. The big market advantage is, depending on convenience, either crippling or non-existent according to the small market teams, and not surprisingly, they would prefer to not see Davis team up with James in Los Angeles.
If Davis is being recruited by a star in a small market city, however, that outrage curiously disappears.
Antetokounmpo, who is a superstar in every sense of the word, just days ago greeted the visiting Davis by saying “Come to the Bucks, man.” The Bucks even posted the moment to their Instagram page, and Antetokounmpo replied to the post with “Recruiting #DvisToMilwaukee #414.”
But Milwaukee isn’t Los Angeles, so that isn’t tampering. Obviously.
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