The Los Angeles Lakers have been fined $50,000 for public comments made by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson about Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA announced Tuesday. Johnson’s comments violated the league tampering rules.
Johnson’s comments came Jan. 29, when he told ESPN this about Antetokounmpo:
“With his ball-handling skills and his passing ability. He plays above the rim I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates. That’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”
We added emphasis to the part of the quote that received the most attention at the time, and the Milwaukee Bucks’ media team even used that in a social graphic.
Though that’s both ironic and amusing, Johnson’s comments still crossed the league’s tampering rules. Which leads us to the question ...
What is tampering again?
Tampering, on its surface, is a ban on players, coaches, or front office executives attempting to induce a player under contract with another team to play for his team.
But there’s really two types of tampering — private tampering and public tampering. (Those aren’t official terms, but I think they define the two ways that teams run afoul of this rule as well as any.) The Lakers and Johnson already been caught in a private tampering violation for making contact with Paul George while he was still under contract with the Indiana Pacers. But as SB Nation writer Tom Ziller notes, the rule is impossible to fully enforce.
Tampering is so fuzzy and subjective. Players, coaches, and general managers talk to each other all the time. Agents have increasingly transitioned into front office roles; retired players are moving into that direction, too.
Los Angeles ended up being fined $500,000 for the George incident, 10 times as much as Tuesday’s announcement, because the private tampering done in those circumstances is deemed to be more serious than off-hand public comments.
Public tampering is much more clear cut: coaches and general managers, especially, cannot talk about other players in any manner that doesn’t relate directly to their team. They can’t mention their upcoming free agency, or that they’d like to coach them, or anything like that. Coaches, GMs, and even owners still break this rule from time to time, because the NBA can be stringent about comments that seem innocuous.
Why does it matter that Johnson said what he said?
Mainly, the NBA is trying to stamp out this entire news cycle. It’s not just Johnson saying something about Antetokounmpo — it’s Johnson saying that, then Antetokounmpo responding, and then the national media responding to both. If the league isn’t careful, some general managers will just start gassing up potential free agents who they see as targets in the future. If there’s no rule, why not?
That’s probably why the rule still exists. Privately, though, teams will always find ways around these rules. How do you think that so many free agency deals are signed at 12:01 a.m. on the dot on July 1, just moments after the free agency moratorium lifts each year, when supposedly no contact was allowed prior? Do you think every single free agent in these situations immediately said yes, or had they already been presented the offer with time to think about it?
Johnson should learn the rules, because the NBA has made it really easy to avoid tampering fines. This really isn’t hard!