The Story Is Bigger Than Magic

Magic Johnson is the centerpiece of a tampering accusation filed by the Indiana Pacers alleging illegal contact with then Pacers forward Paul George. The Pacers, stunned by the George defection, are operating on a theory that Magic Johnson, on behalf of the Lakers, had contact with George that caused George to tell the Pacers he no longer wanted to be in Indiana, and he only wanted to be in Los Angeles. The NBA is investigating and all parties will be interviewed to sort out fact from fiction, although the Lakers deny the charges. The investigation will be conducted by the law firm Watchell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

The last cheating charge that resulted in a devastating punishment was when the Minnesota Timberwolves were found guilty of paying free agent Joe Smith three one year deals for a smaller salary than he normally would have received in a multi-year deal. It was an under the table agreement that allowed the Wolves to obtain Smith’s Bird rights and then after the three year window give him the salary he was seeking which would allow the Wolves to go over the cap without penalty. The league got wind of it after the professional partnership of Smith’s agents dissolved, which included a lawsuit. That is when all the details of the back room deal come to light.

The Timberwoves were fined $3.5 million dollars. They lost first round draft picks. Joe Smith’s contract was voided, The Wolves owner Glen Taylor was suspended and VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale took a leave of absence.

The Timberwolves big fail besides the wink wink cheating was not knowing who to bargain with in the back room. Journeyman and former number one pick Joe Smith was not worth the punishment. But Paul George? That’s a completely different story.

Paul George’s  Lakers infatuation isn’t a secret. He wants in for a number of reasons. He is from the area. His idol and mentor is Kobe Bryant. His favorite coach, Brian Shaw, is an assistant. And, it’s L.A.

Both things can be true though. Paul George wanting to play in L.A. and preaching it to the masses, and Magic intervening.

What the Pacers want to believe happened is that Magic made contact, either accidentally because he’s a new front office guy, or purposefully, and it caused George to tell Pacers management he wanted out and he wasn’t going to sign an extension unless it was with the Lakers. The inference in that sort of wishful Pacers thinking is that George and his agent aren’t smart enough to come up with this plan on their own, they needed the Magic push.

Another possibility is that Kobe Bryant, a retired player not on the Lakers payroll, called Paul George himself. Kobe’s impact on current players such as Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard is significant.

The Pacers are understandably chagrined and bitter that rebuilding has been forced upon them. Blaming Magic is easier than being accountable and admitting they were an active participant in George’s departure by not organizing a contending roster.

Whether Magic is guilty or not, the bigger story is what is happening in the league with opt-outs. Originally, opt-outs were an owner advantage. They could control contracts with the money structured to keep star players in town; stars would stay in town because- and this is where the owners thinking was flawed- players are greedy.

But Kevin Durant took less money to go to Golden State. Chris Paul opted-in and took less money as a traded player. No one knows what Paul George is going to do next summer. Or DeMarcus Cousins. Or Russell Westbrook. This has NBA owners nervous. How can they keep their stars in check if money isn’t a lure? Already, they can’t keep players from talking to one another about future opportunities.

LeBron James incentivized players to change teams; loyalty has its flexible lines.

All of a sudden, the owners are peeking through a very narrow window with disaster a hiccup in the distance. That Russell Westbrook has not signed his extension only adds to the tempest. The players have found a way to give themselves most of the power and at the same time, reflexively, shut the owners out. The owners may negotiate away opt-outs but the players will only ask for smaller contracts, three year deals. This is a problem that is going to get worse for the owners, not better. Daryl Morey acknowledged Chris Paul is, perhaps, a one year rental. The Rockets may be starting over next summer. And maybe the Thunder too.

But back to Magic. If he tampered it will be a costly fine the Lakers can afford. Draft picks taken away won’t hurt as much since the Lakers have a nice stable of young talent. Losing the opportunity to sign Paul George would be catastrophic. If Magic didn’t do anything remotely connected to tampering the league is worse off. Blaming Magic is low hanging fruit that makes the owners feel better. Someone cheated. Take your punishment. But having no one to blame means their system of keeping stars in place is a house of cards that is blowing away. Armageddon is here.


photo via llananba