Charlotte Hornets

Why the NBA blew it by not punishing the Lakers more for tampering with Paul George

The NBA has fined the Los Angeles Lakers $500,000 for tampering, regarding Paul George. The Indiana Pacers asked for an investigation. George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The NBA has fined the Los Angeles Lakers $500,000 for tampering, regarding Paul George. The Indiana Pacers asked for an investigation. George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. AP

I get that $500,000 is a lot of money. The Buss family, who own the Los Angeles Lakers, won’t just shrug over having to write that check to the NBA.

However, the NBA blew it Thursday by not punishing the Lakers more after determining that the front office tampered, in regard to All-Star forward Paul George. The league had a prime opportunity to say interfering with a contractual relationship between a player (particularly a superstar) and a team is inexcusable.

The NBA should have barred the Lakers from signing George once he becomes an unrestricted free agent, either next summer or the summer after that (George has a $20.5 million player option for 2018-19).

The league said in a news release Thursday that an independent law firm, hired to investigate allegations, established that Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager, had discussions with George’s agent expressing interest in George. The NBA also announced it had previously warned the Lakers about tampering, after president of basketball operations Magic Johnson made comments about George in April on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

This was blatant, and it’s easy to establish the damage to which it contributed. George was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, and he was by far that franchise’s biggest asset. Under pressure to get something once George made it clear he wouldn’t re-sign, the Pacers traded George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

Oladipo and Sabonis – two pretty good players – were hardly fair compensation for losing a player selected for four of the last five All-Star Games.

The NBA said there is no evidence the Lakers had an agreement to sign or trade for George. But that would have made this worse only by degree.

The Lakers did the Pacers dirty. I guarantee if this situation was reversed, and the Lakers could prove another team interfered with a player they had under contract, the Lakers would have raised hell with the league office.

Anything short of barring the Lakers from pursuing George in the future sends a terrible message to the NBA’s 30 front offices. Even if such a punishment was overturned in the courts, the league had an obligation to protect the integrity of competitive balance, and this fine does not accomplish that.

If the Lakers end up signing George, a native Californian, it will reinforce the most cynical assumptions about the NBA: That the Lakers are too big to fail, after winning fewer than 30 games each of the past four seasons. That the fortunes of small-market teams, like the Pacers, don’t matter. That iconic former players, such as Johnson, get off lightly.

It’s not as if the Lakers can plead ignorance. Pelinka was a prominent agent for NBA players prior to joining the Lakers’ front office. Among his former clients: Kobe Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Charlotte Bobcats All-Star Gerald Wallace.

Obviously, Pelinka had to know the contact he had with George’s agent was wrong. Pelinka is a brilliant guy with a law degree and a business degree, who played basketball at Michigan. This was not an “oops” by a rookie general manager.

Lakers fans will say, “Hey, everybody does this.” I don’t know that to be true, but if it is, that’s all the more incentive for commissioner Adam Silver to make an example of any team getting caught.

Bottom line: I hear players say all the time that fines don’t much change behavior, but if you suspend players for games, it commands their attention.

The same logic applies to teams: Don’t just ding their wallets. Hit them in the roster.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell