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The NBA is investigating whether Magic Johnson tampered with Ben Simmons, the Lakers deny the allegations

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This story has a weird scent to it, and Magic Johnson might once again find himself in an awkward situation with the league office. The Lakers just can’t stop tampering, or at the very least appearing to step into gray areas.

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Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson & Rob Pelinka Los Angeles Lakers Media Availability Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

After falling very publicly on their face thanks to failed attempts at back-channeled tampering and underhanded trade tactics, the Los Angeles Lakers are jumping right back on that horse with another target: Ben Simmons. The Philadelphia 76ers, unfortunately, might be onto them.

No matter how benign or well-meaning you might think Magic Johnson’s intentions with Simmons are, his comments about Simmons over the weekend have netted the Lakers yet another tampering investigation from the league office, according to Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times:

Update: The Lakers have said that they did not tamper.

But what exactly were the comments that led to all this?

Let’s rewind to Sunday morning, when Johnson was speaking to media about the trade deadline and the fine line between showing empathy for players at the middle of trade rumors and babying them.

The very last question of that scrum concerned whether Magic enjoys watching Simmons play prompted an, um, interesting response:

Reporter: “Only because he was likened to you in a complimentary way, I was wondering if you enjoy watching Ben Simmons play?”

Magic: “Oh for sure. For sure.

All right, doing okay so far...

“He reached out to me, not to me directly, to the Lakers to find out if we can get together this summer.”

NO MAGIC WHAT ARE YOU DOING WHY WOULD YOU BRING THAT UP IN FRONT OF MICROPHONES AND CAMERAS WHEN THE QUESTION HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THAT AGHHHHHHHHHH--

“I said hey you’ve got to clear it with the league, and if the Sixers sign off, we sign off and the league signs off that there’s not nothing going on, he just wants to know how to play the position like a big guard, then that’s fine, I’ll do that. But if everybody doesn’t sign off we can’t get together. But I love his game. I love his vision... He has a very high basketball IQ.”

Those are the right steps to take, it’s just fair to argue that Johnson should not have publicly enumerated them in the current league climate, and thus created a firestorm that led to a tampering investigation. Given the question that was asked, it’s hard not to see this as a totally unforced error and major gaffe.

Here is video, for full context:

Earlier Monday morning, the Sixers’ side of the story made its way to the public and, well, Magic doesn’t look great here, either.

According to Ganguli, some dispute Brand’s portrayal of events:

A person familiar with the phone call disputed that characterization, saying Allen Lumpkin, the 76ers’ director of basketball administration, called the Lakers to request that meeting for Simmons. Among Lumpkin’s responsibilities is player development.

Pelinka, the Lakers general manager, called Brand to tell him about the request and that it made the Lakers uncomfortable, the person said.

Another person familiar with Simmons’ thinking, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said the 6-foot-10 point guard simply wanted tips from Johnson who was about the same size as a point guard. Simmons will be a Sixer for a long time, the person said.

But getting back to the matter at hand — So we’re to believe that Magic Johnson, the president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, is willing to help out the point guard of an opposing organization, was sitting on information for a month that the Sixers didn’t want this meeting to go down, and just now randomly happened to talk about this meeting when it had literally nothing to do at all with the question being asked, and is being completely benign in doing so? And that’s if you’re willing to offer up the benefit of the doubt and think Magic was only going to talk basketball stuff with Simmons in the first place.

What are we doing here, really? I’m legitimately asking. The Lakers know they are under special scrutiny because of the tampering fines this front office has already racked up, and because of how public and ugly the Anthony Davis trade fiasco went down not even a week ago.

What Magic and the Lakers have to realize is that they have to work with these teams whose superstars they are so brazenly courting. We already saw the impact of that with Dell Demps over the last week. Before that, we saw it with both the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers’ reputation around the league is taking hit after hit and there’s Magic talking about superstar after superstar in ways that will only further damage the franchise’s public image and force the league into looking even more closely at their operations.

Once the league finishes its latest investigation of the Lakers, we’ll see what steps they might look to take. Given how regularly they’ve had to look into Magic’s front office, it wouldn’t be shocking at all if Adam Silver sends a message to really tell them to cut this out.

In the meantime, Jeanie Buss might really have to take all this into consideration and wonder when it might be time to step in. This is becoming (if it isn’t already) embarrassing, and the team’s dealings around an already highly competitive league are only going to get more complicated as Magic pisses off more executives off with this type of behavior.

If the NBA does find illegal communication has taken place, Buss will have to ask herself some very awkward questions about the front office she put into place. Given Magic’s proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth in these public settings, it might make sense to at the very least give him less airtime.

This story is still in its infancy and will continue to evolve as the league conducts its investigation. We’ll see how things turn out, or just wait until Magic talks about the next superstar currently employed by another team.

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