It was a well-coordinated effort by LeBron James and his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Days before Anthony Davis and the Pelicans came to Los Angeles to face the Lakers, a flurry of stories were leaked and reported with LeBron’s endorsement of wanting to play with Davis as the big headline. It was an effort to put pressure on the Pelicans — the Lakers would love to get in a trade conversation with New Orleans right now before Boston can get involved in the discussion — but sources with direct knowledge of the Pelicans plans have been clear with me, Davis is not being traded during this season.
Was that tampering? Some small market GMs said yes (by a strict definition of the CBA), LeBron said no. By how the NBA has chosen to enforce the rules over time, it was not — players talking about other players has been allowed. Like it or not. And through-the-media moves like LeBron’s represent a drop in the bucket of recruiting that actually goes on. Everyone tampers. Everyone knows it. And with player movement part of what is fueling the growth in the NBA’s popularity, the league isn’t going to come down hard on stopping it.
Trying to save some face, the NBA sent a memo to teams about player tampering, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
In a memo obtained by ESPN on Friday morning, league counsel seemed to be alluding to James’ scenario, saying, “employment contracts are to be respected and conduct that interferes with contractual employment relationships is prohibited.
“This principle is particularly important in today’s media environment, where any actions or comments relating to potential player movement receive immediate and widespread public attention. Teams should be entitled to focus their efforts on the competition this season with the players they have under contract, without having to divert attention or resources to conduct or speculation regarding the potential destinations of those players in future seasons once their contracts expire.”
Okay, but what are you going to do about it?
The memo says if player comments are part of a pattern of an organizational effort to recruit a player, it will be seen as tampering. Great. But the Lakers — already burned by tampering fines for Magic Johnson — are not the ones making a public push to get AD to LA. That’s LeBron. He went to dinner with Davis after the Laker/Pelicans game, and the two share an agent so it’s easy for LeBron to get that message through. Or, LeBron could just text Davis. Or talk to him at the All-Star Game events. Or a million other ways. Teams can do the same thing. The Lakers signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in part because he is a Rich Paul/Klutch client and it helped establish a relationship that would bring future players to the team, but that’s not tampering, that’s a player signing.
Proving an organizational effort by a team to tamper is going to be very difficult, unless the league gets a hold of smoking gun emails or something. Teams are smarter than that.
All of this gets back to the main point above: How badly does the league really want to stop this. They don’t want the perception of tampering, but player movement and rumors of player movement are a huge part of the game’s popularity. The league doesn’t really want it to stop. It’s just about the perception.