The rookies on the court are expected to make mistakes. It happened plenty in the Lakers’ 112-93 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
But the people in the suits? More has to be expected.
For the third time since the Lakers’ front office was detonated and rebuilt with Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations and Rob Pelinka as the general manager, the team was reprimanded by the league for violating the NBA’s anti-tampering rules.
Tuesday, the Lakers were fined $50,000 for comments Magic Johnson made to ESPN about Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. In an interview, Johnson said the comparisons between his game and Antetokounmpo’s were more than fair.
“Oh yeah,” he told ESPN. “With his ballhandling skills and his passing ability.… He plays above the rim. I never could do that. But in his understanding of the game, his basketball IQ, his creativity of shots for his teammates, that’s where we [have the] same thing. Can bring it down, make a pass, make a play. I’m just happy he’s starting in the All-Star game because he deserves that. And he’s going to be like an MVP, a champion, this dude he’s going to put Milwaukee on the map. And I think he’s going to bring them a championship one day.”
The Bucks even shared the quote on the team’s Instagram account.
The Lakers had no comment on the fine.
While this isn’t “tampering” in the same way it was when Pelinka and Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, had an improper conversation that cost the team a $500,000 fine, Johnson’s comments to ESPN break a simple rule team executives have to adhere to — don’t speak publicly about players under contract with other teams.
It’s not the first time Johnson has had problems with things he’s said.
The NBA warned him about tampering violations after appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last April.
Kimmel asked Johnson about how he’d handle seeing George, an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018 rumored to have interest in returning home to Los Angeles.
Instead of dodging the question, Johnson played along.
“We gonna say ‘Hi’ because we know each other,” Johnson said. “You just can’t say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’ll be wink-winking, like, ‘You know what that means, right?’”
The problem is — and continues to be as exemplified by his comments to ESPN — Magic Johnson can’t stop being Magic Johnson.
As a longtime icon in the sport and as a commentator, Johnson had forums to share his opinions about players throughout the league. He sacrificed that when he became the team’s president of basketball operations nearly a year ago.
Future punishment for tampering could cost the team more money, future draft picks or even the ability to sign specific players.
The fine from the NBA came just after a separate report on ESPN had the Lakers essentially exiting the chase for the top free agents in 2018 like LeBron James and George by “recalibrating” their focus to the free-agent class in 2019.
While on some levels, that decision seems like a “You can’t fire me, I quit!” tactic, it also could be related to some recent optimism on how the team has fared.
Since Jan. 7, only the Houston Rockets have a better winning percentage than the Lakers, who have played their last 11 games without Lonzo Ball, their prized rookie, on the court.
If the Lakers scrap their long-spoken plans to try to sign a pair of players this summer to max contracts for a more prudent approach, it will mean smaller, more nuanced decisions for the team’s front office.
Mistakes when it comes to the NBA’s rules so far haven’t cost the team more than a sizable amount of money. Mistakes when it comes to rebuilding a championship franchise, though, would be even more costly.