During the lead-up to its 2019 free agency period, the NBA fined the LA Clippers $50,000 for tampering after head coach Doc Rivers said that Kawhi Leonard was the current player in the NBA most similar to Michael Jordan.
Now, nearly a year later, Rivers made a guest appearance on his son Austin Rivers’ podcast, “Go Off,” and while Doc said he was simply giving his honest opinion that Leonard’s body type and in-between game were similar to Jordan, Austin offered up a theory on the real reason his dad got fined (discussion starts around the 33:30 mark):
“You only got fined, and this is my opinion, due to the public pressure of Lakers fans. Because they wanted Kawhi Leonard so bad, and I think their fanbase annoyingly controls so much of the media, to the point where that became a thing.
“Lakers fans think every free agent is coming to them. They think Klay Thompson was coming there, they thought Paul George was coming there, that’s just what it is. Again, it’s a credit to how passionate they are, I say this actually as a compliment to their fanbase and how passionate they are about their Lakers, but I think the pressure, anything you said that had to do with Kawhi would have been viewed as tampering or you trying to lure him in. Because this happened before free agency, when you’re allowed to say anything, right?”
No, you are actually absolutely not allowed to do that, Austin, glad you asked.
According to Larry Coon’s invaluable CBA FAQ, tampering “is when a player or team directly or indirectly entices, induces or persuades anybody (player, general manager, etc.) who is under contract with another team in order to negotiate for their services.”
Most will remember that, at the time of Doc’s comments, Leonard was still under contract with the Toronto Raptors and more than a month away from free agency. Rivers did this on national TV, in full view of the league office, and with the additional context that the Clippers had sent Lawrence Frank and other team employees to follow Leonard around from game-to-game like stalkers all season.
What the Clippers had done there wasn’t technically illegal, but they had been practically begging the NBA to fine them for tampering. Doc’s comments just gave the league the means to do so, because as the FAQ points out, “you may have noticed that when general managers and other team personnel talk to the press, they are careful to avoid talking about specific players who play for other teams. They do this in order to avoid tampering. The only allowed response when talking about players under contract with other teams is to decline comment.”
One of the few exceptions to that rule is coaches being allowed to talk about opposing players during pregame and postgame interviews on nights they’re playing against them, but this was far from that, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the time:
“I understand the competing interests of the media hearing a coach’s view about a current NBA player but it’s something that there’s a bright line in this league and you’re not allowed to do it,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Friday, according to the Boston Globe. “Coaches or team executives in those positions need to say I’m not permitted by the league to respond to that question. It’s a balance of interests, I understand that, but he unfortunately crossed a bright line.”
Still, back in the present and on the podcast, Doc doubled down, saying “I think that’s the reason though, to be honest. They felt like it was tampering. And you’re right. I don’t know where it came from, Lakers fans [or] Toronto.” But still, when Austin said that the media and fans put Doc in an unfortunate position, Doc agreed, but also acknowledged that in the end it didn’t matter:
“It did (put me in a difficult position), and I said it so innocently, but you know what listen, at the end of the day it all worked out because we got Kawhi, and at the end of the day I didn’t mean it any other way than complimentary.”
The thing is, I would actually completely buy that Rivers said this mostly innocently. I mean, was Leonard really going to base his decision to sign with the Clippers on Doc saying something nice about him on TV one time? I’m going to guess not, solely because I sincerely doubt that Leonard even owns a TV or watches any shows, likely preferring to spend his resting time in power saving mode until it’s time to play basketball again or feed on an entire bag of apples (okay fine that second story isn’t real but still).
That said, to the degree Lakers fans were demanding that the standard to fine Rivers had been met, they were pretty justified. As most dedicated readers of this blog remember, in 2018, then-Lakers executive Magic Johnson was slapped with the dumbest tampering fine in NBA history for saying that Giannis Antetokounmpo would win a championship one day... in Milwaukee.
If that, said in a written ESPN story (not on TV), five years before the earliest Antetokounmpo could become a free agent, in a quote the Bucks’ social media team liked enough to make a graphic of themselves, crossed the boundaries for tampering, then Rivers saying what he said about Leonard like a month before trying to lure him in free agency after his team stalked him all season certainly crossed the line.
It’s a stupid rule, but if it’s going to be enforced on one team, it needs to be enforced equally. With all that noted now though, I think I can comfortably speak for all Lakers fans in saying...