LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers are under investigation by the NBA for possible tampering involving Paul George.
The Lakers are denying the allegations filed by the Indiana Pacers and maintain that they expect to be cleared in the matter, a team source told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. George informed the Pacers in June that he planned to opt out of his contract next year and intends to sign a free-agent deal with his hometown Lakers. He was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis on June 30 in a deal that was finalized on July 6.
If the NBA finds evidence of tampering and can prove the Lakers are guilty of impermissible contact with George while he was under contract with the Pacers, the league can punish the Lakers by taking away draft picks, fining the organization, setting future restrictions on acquiring George -- who will be a free agent next summer -- and/or possibly suspending offending team officials.
ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks helps us sort out several issues facing the Lakers.
Q: How does the NBA define tampering?
MARKS: Under NBA tampering rules, no player, coach or management person may entice or induce a player under contract with another team to play for his team.
Q: How rare it is for a team to actually get punished for tampering?
MARKS: Several times, a team has been fined for mentioning to the media or season-ticket holders a player it wishes to pursue in free agency.
In 2013, Atlanta and Sacramento were fined for outlining their plains for free agency that included players not on the Hawks and Kings.
Atlanta sent an email to season-ticket holders:
"The buzz around our offseason is more than heating up," the Hawks' letter to fans said. "With massive cap space, 4 draft picks, and free agency rapidly approaching, we sit in the best position in the NBA. Player interest is skyrocketing as the possibilities of landing Chris Paul & Dwight Howard become more and more of a reality. This is your opportunity to get on board before its [sic] too late. Once we solidify our signings there will be no seats left."
Meanwhile, former head coach Mike Malone mentioned in his introductory news conference that Paul, then with the Clippers, would look pretty good in a Sacramento uniform.
In both cases, the NBA handled the investigation internally and fined both teams without outside counsel. In the current case of the Lakers, because the scope of the investigation is not cut-and-dried, an outside law firm (Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz) is being used to investigate phone records, conduct interviews, review text messages, et cetera.
In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets were investigated for tampering with former Minnesota Timberwolves player Andrei Kirilenko, who opted out of a $10.2 million contract to sign with Brooklyn for a starting salary of $3.2 million. The Nets were investigated for having a side deal but were cleared. In this case, Nets executives, Kirilenko and agent Marc Fleisher were investigated thoroughly; an outside law firm and the NBA reviewed documentation such as phone records and conversations.
Q: Who can or cannot be charged with tampering?
MARKS: Tampering situations can carry different penalties.
In the case of Atlanta and Sacramento, both teams were fined an undisclosed amount of money. No individuals were fined -- only the teams.
In 2000, on the other hand, the Timberwolves were found to have tampered with Joe Smith before the 1998-99 season, and the implications were different. In that case, the NBA (with an outside law firm) discoveed that the Timberwolves and Smith had a side agreement for a future contract that would circumvent the salary cap.
Minnesota was fined $3.5 million, five first-round picks were stripped (two were eventually returned), and GM Kevin McHale and owner Glen Taylor were also suspended.
Q: Why is the NBA investigating the Lakers in August and not in April, when Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson was on the "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" show joking about winking at George whether the two ran into each other in the offseason?
MARKS: The Pacers might not have filed for tampering until much later -- after George's trade value was diminished with the news that he wanted to go to L.A.
However, the Pacers could have a hard time proving that the value of George's trade value diminished when his agent, Aaron Mintz, implied his desire to opt out of his contract at the end of the 2017-18 season.
A player on an expiring contract like George has limited value based on the theory of a one-year rental and the uncertainty that the player would commit long-term.
In the case of George, it was buyer beware even before he let the Pacers know his desire to return home to Los Angeles.
Q: What happens if there are phone records between Johnson and Mintz?
MARKS: Even if there was a conversation in June, it could be difficult to prove it involved George. Mintz also represents Luke Kennard, who was a draft prospect at the time, so the Lakers could have been setting up a draft workout.
Mintz also represents former Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell and current starting power forward Julius Randle.
The Lakers traded Russell on June 22 to Brooklyn, and any correspondence found between Mintz and Johnson could be a result of conversations regarding Russell and not George.
Q: Why might the league consider this tampering but not Draymond Green's text to Kevin Durant shortly after Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals before Durant would become a free agent?
MARKS: Although there is language in the NBA constitution and the collective bargaining agreement, the league has looked the other way when it comes to a player recruiting another player in free agency or in trades. Unless a player violates the tampering rules by offering a financial incentive, the league will look the other way.
Here is the language through which the NBA could impose sanctions against a player: Article 35 (Misconduct) of the Constitution and Article XIII (Circumvention) states that the NBA can penalize with suspension or a fine.
"The Commissioner shall have the power to suspend for a definite or indefinite period, or to impose a fine not exceeding $50,000, or inflict both such suspension and fine upon any Player who, in his opinion, (i) shall have made or caused to be made any statement having, or that was designed to have, an effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball or of the Association or of a Member."
Q: What are the most common penalties?
MARKS: Depends on the severity of the crime.
Unless there is a paper trail, like in the case of the Timberwolves and Joe Smith, a fine is usually the penalty if the team is found to have done something negligent.
The CBA does give the commissioner broad power to implement significant penalties if there is concrete evidence that the Lakers and George have entered into a verbal agreement for 2018.
Fines ranging from $3 million to $6 million, loss of first-round pick(s), suspension of team personnel, or any current or future transactions voided are the most severe of the penalties.
The commissioner could also fine a team up to $250,000 if it violated the tampering rules to a lesser extent.
Q: How often are teams accused/penalized of tampering?
MARKS: Each situation is different. The NBA is very protective when it comes to teams tampering with a player under contract. Verbally saying or at times slipping to the media about a player that you wish to acquire is one thing. But having an undisclosed agreement is more significant.
Q: Will the investigation be over if the Lakers are proved to be innocent?
MARKS: Yes and no. Consider the proposed tampering charges by the Pacers to be a warning shot at the Lakers.
The Lakers, like the 29 other teams in the league, will be watched closely to make sure no illegal tampering or circumvention occurs.
The Lakers likely would receive a memo from the NBA clearing them of any wrongdoing but also letting them know that if any new information comes to light, the league has the authority to hand out punishments.