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NBA Fastbreak: LeBron James' tampering debate remains a hot topic

NBA Fastbreak: LeBron James' tampering debate remains a hot topic
Anthony Davis and LeBron James put on a show Friday night, and were a hot topic off the court as well. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The conversation among basketball people in Las Vegas for the G League’s Winter Showcase was dominated by the same topic that filled ESPN’s airwaves and defined Friday night’s game between the Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans.

Did LeBron James do anything wrong, such as tampering, when he told ESPN he’d love to play with Anthony Davis? Was it just an obvious answer to an innocent question?

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There was some chatter that small-market teams were peeved by the comments, a sign of James’ and other stars’ strength when it comes to open recruitment of players under contract.

Was it wrong? Most people felt it was such an obvious truth — of course James wants to play with Davis — that hearing the Lakers star say it was hardly a shock.

It certainly wasn’t innocent, not in the eyes of people who know how James has operated in the past, and who earlier this year watched Davis join the same agency that represents James.

James doesn’t just say things. He’s one of the most thoughtful, calculated and in-control stars in all of sports.

Davis can opt out of his contract after next season, and his future is a subject of intense speculation.

Stars leave small markets for bigger ones — it’s an accepted truth in the NBA and a real challenge that Milwaukee will deal with when Giannis Antetokounmpo can become a free agent in 2021. They form super teams because that’s a player’s best bet to win.

There was a sense from some NBA executives that Davis signing with Klutch Sports Group, the agency run by James’ longtime friend Rich Paul, was a passive trade request, a sign of his intention to someday end up with James and the Lakers. That belief existed before James said it would be “amazing” to play with Davis, and even if James had said “Nah” or dodged the question, that belief still would exist.

A lot has to happen to actually get Davis out of New Orleans. The Pelicans (15-18), third from the bottom in the West, have actively tried to upgrade their roster, including making a strong offer for Jimmy Butler.

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If he wants out, Davis may need to force the Pelicans’ hand. He’ll have to turn down a massive contract. He’ll have to tell teams he’ll only sign with the Lakers. And still, the Pelicans wouldn’t be beholden to Davis and his wishes.

The thought among NBA insiders is it’ll eventually happen — and it’ll have nothing to do with what James said last week.

Best in the West

Another topic of conversation at the Winter Showcase was the Western Conference and how Houston’s struggles — which were amplified by a Chris Paul hamstring injury that will keep him out for a few weeks — have opened things for a new team to challenge the Golden State Warriors.

However this season, the top challenge to another Warriors title run may come from the Eastern Conference, where four teams have better net ratings (the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) than the Warriors.

While Denver hasn’t really slowed down despite injuries to key veterans such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, scouts seemed to favor Oklahoma City as the second-best team in the West because of the Thunder’s league-leading defense.

Scouts are still in wait-and-see mode with the Lakers. James’ presence is the one thing that makes them different from every other team in the league. And that matters.

Tip-ins

Former USC guard Jordan McLaughlin might have had the best performance of anyone at the Winter Showcase, scoring 32 points with eight assists and six steals in the Long Island Nets’ win Thursday. McLaughlin, who is not on a two-way contract, is a little small at 6-foot-1 in some scouts’ eyes. … Former first-round pick John Jenkins (6-4, 215) played well in Las Vegas and could get another shot with a team looking for a shooting guard with good size. … There were some whispers that the New York Knicks might be the team to watch when it comes to Bulls forward Jabari Parker, who already is out of Chicago’s plans after he signed with his hometown team in the offseason. … Some NBA executives believe Austin Rivers, whom Phoenix waived last week, could end up with Golden State as the Warriors try to upgrade their bench.

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