In the wake of Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James publicly endorsing pursuit of a trade for Anthony Davis, several small-market general managers are privately expressing outrage over what they believe is the NBA's unwillingness to enforce the league's tampering rules.
Several GMs told ESPN that they reached out to New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps to express dismay over what they perceive as the NBA's tacit endorsement of James' comments to ESPN's Dave McMenamin calling the possibility of Davis' arrival as "amazing" and "incredible."
"It's New Orleans' problem today, and a problem with a different player tomorrow for the rest of us," one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN. "It's open season on small markets and our players."
The NBA bylaws governing players state: "Any Player who, directly or indirectly, entices, induces, persuades or attempts to entice, induce or persuade any Player, Coach, Trainer, General Manager, or any other person who is under contract to any other Member of the Association to enter into negotiations for or relating to his services shall, on being charged with such tampering, should be given an opportunity to answer to such charges after due notice and the Commissioner shall have the power to decide whether or not the charges have been sustained ..."
Rival teams contend James' public longing for players under contract has created a tsunami of reaction, coverage and consequences that can be seen as designed to destabilize an opposition organization working to retain its star player. The fact that Davis recently hired James' agent -- Rich Paul of Klutch Sports -- for his agent representation has elevated the belief that Klutch will eventually push the Pelicans to make a deal with the Lakers -- or risk losing Davis in free agency.
New Orleans has had to spend the past week answering questions -- both internally and externally -- about the future of a player who's under contract through the 2019-20 season. Pelicans management, coaches, players and families have been left to deal with the implications of James' powerful and peerless platform -- and the fallout that comes with it.
Demps declined to comment to ESPN on the impact of James' public endorsement of a Davis deal. There has been no indication that New Orleans has complained to the league office about James' public proclamation on the Pelicans' All-NBA center.
Of course, there's a natural pressure and organizational responsibility that exists for a small-market team to make a case to keep its star in free agency. Still, teams counter that the NBA's refusal to sanction James and the Lakers is condoning the elevation of a circus-like environment that GMs believe the league should be working to lessen.
"If these are the rules, enforce them. If you want to push Anthony Davis in L.A., if you allow LeBron to interfere with teams, then just do it. Change the rules, and say, 'It's the wild, wild west and anything goes.' But give us a list of the rules that you're enforcing, and give us a list of the rules that you're going to ignore." One Western Conference GM to ESPN
League executives contend that the NBA needs to start holding players responsible for public comments the way they generally do owners and management.
"If these are the rules, enforce them," one Western Conference GM told ESPN. "If you want to push Anthony Davis in L.A., if you allow LeBron to interfere with teams, then just do it. Change the rules, and say, 'It's the wild, wild west and anything goes.'
"But give us a list of the rules that you're enforcing, and give us a list of the rules that you're going to ignore."
The NBA has fined the Lakers $500,000 (Paul George) and $50,000 (Giannis Antetokounmpo) for organizational tampering over the past two years, but has resisted punishing players. The NBA views player comments differently from those of management and suggests it only acts to level punishment with evidence of the team's involvement in a player violation.
An NBA spokesman told ESPN on Friday: "Each case is assessed on its own facts. In general, absent evidence of team coordination or other aggravating factors, it is not tampering when a player makes a comment about his interest in playing with another team's player."
What has become more frustrating to small-market executives is that outside interference is no longer restricted to players on the brink of free agency, but some stars -- like Davis -- two years away from it.
Davis can't become a free agent until after the 2019-20 season, and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said Friday that the Kentucky product won't be traded "under any circumstance."
"Interference is as bad as tampering -- maybe worse in this case," one Eastern Conference GM told ESPN. "This becomes a campaign meant to destabilize another organization, install chaos and unrest that make it harder to keep an environment that the player would want to stay in. There's no use in complaining to the league about it. We all get that it's a players' league, but there are rules on the books that they need to follow, too."
There's a broad belief among smaller-market GMs that the league doesn't only condone the public wooing of star players toward big markets, but it encourages it. Commissioner Adam Silver has vehemently pushed back on that notion in the past, but most top team executives are convinced that the NBA is predisposed to craving the drama and storylines created in these circumstances, placing far more value on the potential financial benefits of fan interest and stars in big markets than it does the maintaining of a fair, competitive environment.
"There is no confidence among most of us -- if not all of us -- that the league cares about protecting our interests," one small-market GM told ESPN. "It's hard enough already to hold onto the kind of players we need to try and win with -- but [the league] doesn't do anything to help."