For weeks, even months, the Pacers had heard whispers that the Los Angeles Lakers had been making contact with Paul George's agent, Aaron Mintz, and George's parents. Then Pacers owner Herb Simon, general manager Kevin Pritchard and some other Pacers' officials watched the Magic Johnson yuk-it-up interview on the Jimmy Kimmel Show in April, and they were incensed.
Here's the Magic interview:
Then in June, Mintz informed the Pacers that George was not going to re-sign with the Pacers, largely due to the fact he didn't qualify for the supermax deal, and that George wanted to end up with his hometown Lakers when he became a free agent at the end of the 2017-18 season.
Enough, the Pacers said. This was enough. This, they believed, was blatant tampering, first the whispers of improper contact, then the Magic interview, followed by the phone call from Mintz. The Lakers were talking about a player who wasn't hitting free agency for another two seasons. Not one season, not a couple of days before the start of free agency, which is not allowed but generally accepted as the coin of the realm. Like, when Jeff Teague signs with the Minnesota Timberwolves signs a free-agent deal July 1, you don't think the Wolves and their agent haven't previously spoken? Of course they have. But the league chooses to accept, or at least turn a blind eye to, that sort of thing.
But a full year out?
And so the investigation is well underway with the NBA asking Lakers' officials for e-mails and any other correspondence that might exist between the Lakers' brass – specifically Magic and first-year general manager Rob Pelinka – and either George or George's representative. Tampering is a uniquely difficult charge to prove, but the Pacers believe there's a compelling case to be made here.
Is it petty?
Sure, it's a little bit petty. The Pacers can really put the screws to the Lakers and even George himself. The Pacers themselves do not stand to benefit in any way.
Still, it's necessary, and it's especially necessary in a league where players are forever angling to align themselves with existing super teams. It's especially necessary for small- and mid-market teams to hold big-market teams' feet to the fire in these cases. All over the league, teams like Indiana, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake are losing their star players, creating a very uneven playing field and giving rise to the super team phenomenon. In fact, there's word that other small- and mid-market team officials have reached out to the Pacers and told them, "Good for you. Fight the good fight."
It's also potentially devastating both for the Lakers and George. If found guilty, the Lakers could be fined up to $5 million, they could lose draft picks, team executives could be suspended and the Lakers could be restricted from signing George after the 2017-18 season, which would put a serious crimp in their master rebuilding plan.
Over the years, several teams have been found guilty of tampering, but the most egregious example came in 2000, when the NBA came down hard on the Minnesota Timberwolves for signing free agent Joe Smith to a secret deal. In the end, the Wolves were fined $3.5 million and docked four first-round picks while owner Glen Taylor and vice president Kevin McHale were suspended for a year.
For their part, the Pacers cannot comment on the tampering charge or investigation. There's an NBA-ordered gag order and officials can be fined $100,000 for making a public comment. That explains why the Pacers, and specifically Pritchard, declined comment when reached by WTHR.com.
The Lakers recently responded to the charges with a team statement:
"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."
Suffice to say, the Pacers are angry, having lost their franchise player for dimes on the dollar. They are angry that it became public that George only had eyes for the Lakers, killing the Pacers' potential trade market while telling the Lakers, in essence, "Hey, you don't have to trade for George; you're getting him for nothing after the 2018 season." They are angry about all the whispers they'd been hearing about impermissible contact between the Lakers and George's representative and family, and became even angrier when Johnson, a newbie in his current position as president of the Lakers, put the public full-court press on George on a network late-night show. Then came the Mintz phone call to Pritchard, and soon thereafter, the wheels were put in motion.
It's understood, everybody tampers, at least a little bit. Again, those July 1 free-agent signings do not happen in an information vacuum. Conversations are had. Texts are exchanged. It happens.
This, though, is different. This, if proven, is egregious. I don't know if the Lakers tampered or not – I'll leave it to the investigators to go through Lakers executive's communications – but the Kimmel interview alone was enough to raise some eyebrows.
The Pacers have moved on— honest, they have— but they're still angry, properly angry, and they don't care who knows it.