When the Lakers began remodeling their front office by installing Magic Johnson six months ago, boss Jeanie Buss issued a statement with unmistakable expectations.
"Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect," Buss said.
Being hit with the largest tampering fine in NBA history is not exactly a "height."
When Rob Pelinka was named general manager in March, his statement was equally clear.
"The Lakers are a gold standard for sports franchises in the world, so we all share a responsibility to pursue excellence in everything we do," Pelinka said.
Being sloppy enough to cost your organization $500,000 is not quite "excellence."
Sure, the NBA tampering rules are a joke. Everybody talks. Everybody sells. Everybody tampers. But that the Lakers were careless enough to actually get convicted of tampering on Thursday makes them the national butt of that joke, and runs completely contrary to the smart and savvy culture that Jeanie Buss is trying to rebuild.
No more Jim Buss shenanigans, right? No more acquisition embarrassments? No more chaos?
Not so fast. This latest incident smacks of all three things, all of which could have been completely avoidable with a little foresight, a little discernment, and maybe a little, you know, front-office experience?
The league's investigators found that Pelinka, the former agent, had illegal contact with Aaron Mintz, the agent of former Indiana Pacers star Paul George. The Lakers had been warned to steer clear while George was still under contract.
Hello? This is the one guy the Lakers did not need to tamper with. George has long been telling everybody that he wants to return to his Los Angeles-area roots and play for the Lakers when he becomes a free agent next summer. He doesn't need convincing. He doesn't need pitching. And it certainly doesn't require breaking league rules to make it happen.
The Pacers knew all this, they were bitter about it, and they were probably just waiting for the Lakers to make a move on their unhappy star before they gave him up for lesser value in a one-sided trade with Oklahoma City.
Pelinka had to see this, and yet he contacted Mintz anyway. It could be indicative of the sort of recklessness that is not always attractive to potential free agents looking for that old-fashioned Lakers stability. Then again, maybe Pelinka was just following the lead of his boss, as it was Johnson's silliness that helped land the Lakers in this mess in the first place.
The NBA first warned the Lakers about potential tampering when Johnson gave a wink-wink invitation to George during an April interview with talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel. In answering Kimmel's question about whether the Lakers' basketball president would be able to talk to George if they crossed paths, Johnson said, "We're gonna say hi because we know each other. You can't just say, 'Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,' even though I'll be wink-winking like, 'You know what that means, right?' "
It wasn't enough to constitute tampering, but it was blatant enough to raise eyebrows beyond Johnson's wink, at which point the Lakers should have gone into the weeds instead of sticking their necks out.
Here's guessing Jeanie Buss would agree. She was apparently not thrilled with her front office after Thursday's penalty, so much that, in an unusual move, her lawyer Adam Streisand was quoted on the club's official letterhead with a pledge that sounded as if it came directly from her.
"We can assure the fans that the Lakers will be hyper-vigilant going forward to make sure this is never an issue again," Streisand said.
Yes, one could reasonably argue that this new Lakers front office should be commended for being proactive. Johnson and his relentless smile are slowly restoring the Showtime brand. Pelinka and his smarts have engineered the necessary exits of D'Angelo Russell (attitude) and Timofey Mozgov (contract). Remember, Mitch Kupchak was quietly criticized for being one of the only league executives who didn't tamper with Kevin Durant before the free-agency period last summer. At least these guys are trying, right?
One could also argue the ridiculousness of fining the Lakers for tampering in a summer where the Clippers traded potential free agent Chris Paul to his desired location in Houston three days before the opening of the free-agent window. Paul didn't receive some sort of contractual assurances with the Rockets before the deal was done? It was just luck he ended up where he wants to play? No tampering here? Right.
What is beyond argument is that the Lakers got caught doing something unnecessary, untimely, and just dumb. Even though the huge fine can probably be paid in Lonzo Ball jersey revenue, that's not the point. This could have been worse. This could have cost the Lakers a draft pick. This could have even cost them a chance to sign George next summer.
Do not underestimate the sudden weakness in the knees of the NBA when it is being pressured by a mid-market team to punish a large-market team. Have we already forgotten how the NBA vetoed the Lakers trade for Chris Paul simply because some whiny owner in Cleveland complained about competitive balance a couple of years before LeBron James returned to build a super team in Cleveland?
Fair or not, the tampering conviction offers a peek into the window of how this new Lakers front office operates, and it's not a good look. For the sake of a brand that is bigger than both of them, Johnson and Pelinka should not be afraid to dial it back a tad. They can be daring without being daredevils. They can continue to do solid work without the swagger.
They are trying to create the sort of culture that will be attractive to two max players next summer, a duo that could consist of James and George. Those players need to know they will find a smart, stable environment when they get here. They need to know they are going to a Lakers organization that is once again so powerful and self-assured, it had no need to tamper.