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Tampering or fair pursuit? 'Things get blurry all the time'

Mention tampering, and questions about LeBron James' past, present and future seem to follow. @kingjames/Instagram

The NBA levied a precedent-cementing $500,000 fine on the Los Angeles Lakers organization Thursday for violating the league's notoriously nebulous anti-tampering rule.

The fine came after the league warned the Lakers about team president Magic Johnson's appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in April during which he joked that he planned to deliver a sort of come-play-for-us, wink-wink to Paul George, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, should Johnson run into him in Los Angeles in the summertime.

The league's investigation found that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and George's agent, Aaron Mintz, had discussions in which George's name came up and Pelinka offered a "prohibited expression of interest" to Mintz.

The finding comes off a little like a state trooper pulling over a single car for speeding when the flow of traffic is all pushing 80, or the NCAA targeting a specific program for a probe while infractions run rampant among all its competitors in the conference in which it plays. That is to say, if there is a rule in place that can't be universally enforced, those who do get caught for breaking it end up as almost sympathetic characters in a way.

One Western Conference executive reached for comment Thursday night told ESPN that the league was "at least trying to get serious" about tampering, but added that the proper penalty for what the Lakers did should be $1 million or the loss of a second-round pick at the least to serve as a "true deterrent" to keep other teams from doing the same. Another Eastern Conference GM suggested some sort of suspension system be put in place.

Pelinka, in a statement, said, "We respect and accept the NBA's decision regarding this matter." It's not like he could feign ignorance about the rule. A Western Conference coach told ESPN that "we are constantly bombarded with the rules about tampering from the league office."

Yet, others aim at the rule itself before blaming Pelinka.

"The NBA is an incestuous structure to begin with," one prominent agent told ESPN. "Agents rep multiple players on multiple teams. Things get blurry all the time."

While the quote might appear self-serving, think about the restrictions the league is trying to put on natural conversations that are bound to occur. Mintz doesn't just rep George, he also reps Lakers forward Julius Randle and former Lakers point guard D'Angelo Russell.

Pelinka and Mintz no doubt engaged in countless above-board conversations about those two players. When L.A. was looking to trade Russell, it was only logical that Pelinka would talk to Mintz about all sorts of scenarios involving his client, including perhaps one that could have landed George from the Pacers.

To shut down the free flow of ideas between GMs and agents would be for the NBA to try to pretend to be something it's not to appease owners who feel like they should have total control over their players.

And what about the countless examples of league-sanctioned avenues in which coaches and executives can interact with opposing teams' players and it's totally OK? USA Basketball. The All-Star Game. Basketball without Borders.

"Building a close bond that way is more valuable than a conversation," the agent said.

The NBA has long been a paranoid business. Teams view their scouting reports as sacred intellectual property, even though so many squads run similar plays. A few seasons back, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Darren Erman went so far as to secretly record coaches meetings when he wasn't present, leading to his dismissal. It's common practice for a head coach to push to hand-select his entire staff for fear that anyone else in the room could have more loyalty to management than to him if he wasn't the coach who brought him in.

The whole idea of tampering feeds into that paranoia. But unless the league goes full Big Brother and monitors its members at all times, it can be easily circumvented. As another agent told ESPN: "Don't want a paper trail of texts on the company phone? There are ways to speak in person instead."

So, if tampering is difficult to police and hardly punished when caught, what's the hope the league puts any sort of dent in it with this recent Lakers judgment?

And what is a half a million to an NBA team, anyway? For instance: The Cleveland Cavaliers' deal with Goodyear for the patches on their jerseys is worth nearly $12 million annually, a league source told ESPN. You're telling me it isn't worth the potential penalty of taking 1/24th of that new financial windfall to gamble with and contact a player about coming to the Cavs before he hits free agency, hoping that it's a difference-maker?

And the guy wearing the No. 23 jersey with the nifty wing-foot logo on the front next season will be as tempting a tampering target that could exist.

If a team out there really wants to lure LeBron James in the summer of 2018, when he could potentially hit free agency, what would stop it from starting that process now?

Multiple league sources suggested to ESPN that a major motivating factor in the Lakers' signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $18 million deal this offseason was because Caldwell-Pope is repped by Rich Paul, the same agent as James.

Now the Lakers can spend a year communicating with Paul, showing him how they run their organization, sharing meals, etc., and it will all be protected under the Caldwell-Pope prism, even if it could prove influential as to what James ultimately decides to do.

As for teams being even more covert in their preemptive pursuit of James, a league source familiar with James' past free agencies said more teams would view it as a "waste of time" because James is known for wanting to have the control rather than be wooed.

And the league trying to micromanage the every move of one of its biggest stars would seem to be forgetting where its bread is buttered. Perhaps that why when James vacationed in Italy last summer with Denver Nuggets' president Josh Kroenke on the yacht that belongs to Kroenke's father, Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, the NBA didn't step in with some tampering charge citing improper benefits.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert hired a private law firm to investigate whether Miami Heat president Pat Riley tampered to bring James to South Beach in 2010. The NBA dismissed Gilbert's claim and absolved the Heat.

If James does go somewhere else next summer, you have to wonder if Gilbert will choose to look into tampering once again.

Even beyond James' upcoming situation, anytime you hear of a multimillion-dollar deal agreed upon at 9:01 p.m. PT when free agency opens up, tampering will be questioned. Anytime a trade comes out of nowhere, tampering will be questioned.

Said one assistant coach to ESPN: "I don't know if it will ever stop."