Kemba Walker may have signed with the Boston Celtics during NBA free agency last summer, but for a while, it seemed like him joining the Los Angeles Lakers might be a real possibility.
Walker was one of the top unrestricted free agents on the market in July of 2019, and while he said his first priority was re-signing with the Hornets, Walker was initially connected to the Lakers on the night of the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. The team’s interest in him seemingly only grew after they completed their trade for Anthony Davis, with two separate reports framing him as a top target for the purple and gold.
Walker ultimately opted to head to Boston instead, but Sopan Deb of the New York Times spoke to Walker for an enjoyable profile on why he’s so happy just playing basketball right now, and within, Walker confirmed that the Lakers did indeed have interest in signing him:
But leaving Charlotte was a shock for Walker. He expected to stay, he said. Walker was eligible for a so-called supermax extension, but the Hornets came in with an offer that was less than that, conscious of paying the luxury tax. He began to consider other teams. At first, Walker said, he was heavily pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks and the team he grew up closest to, the Knicks. He considered going home.
What is interesting here is that Walker was technically never really eligible to talk to teams last summer. Walker was first reported to have decided to join Boston before the period when teams were allowed to talk to free agents had even opened, and his agent announced that he had finalized the terms of a four-year, $141 million max contract literally less than a minute into the time that teams were allowed to speak with players and their reps.
Wow, they sure must have negotiated fast!
In all seriousness, it’s clear that teams were talking to Walker here before they were technically allowed to, including the Lakers. That means that Rob Pelinka is doing what the team hired him to do.
Before Pelinka was brought on, Ramona Shelburne did a story for ESPN on the dynamics behind the Lakers bringing on Magic Johnson, then simply as an advisor for then vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak. The story was critical of Kupchak for falling behind the times of the modern NBA, and failing to tamper with players like seemingly every other team in the league was:
Said one player agent, who has dealt with Kupchak on several contracts, “He’s the only GM in the league who won’t engage at all before 9:01 p.m. [PT] on the first night of free agency. Then when he calls to express interest, there’s no stickiness to it.”
That speaks to Kupchak’s integrity, as contact with an agent or player is considered tampering before the opening of free agency, but it also speaks, according to sources, to a lack of savvy. There are ways of gathering information on free agents without trampling the rules, so that a team doesn’t begin the process far behind everyone else.
Soon after, Johnson and Jeanie Buss executed their coup to get Jim Buss and Kupchak out, replacing the former with Johnson, and the latter with a man who then was known mainly as Kobe Bryant’s former agent, Rob Pelinka.
Pelinka is running the Lakers by himself now after Johnson quit his job to tweet more freely, and given his past experience as a player agent, it seems likely that this shift in how the Lakers do business — i.e., being willing to contact player reps before it is strictly legal under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, just like every other team — is a credit to him understanding how current league dynamics work. The Lakers may not have gotten Walker, but they also likely knew that well before the period when they could negotiate with players as a result of Pelinka’s efforts, and were able to work on other contingency plans instead of wasting time on a player who would head elsewhere.
To make a long story short, this is the latest evidence of the Lakers moving into the modern NBA in terms of how their basketball operations are run, and being willing to operate like other teams so they aren’t behind the 8-ball. That’s a credit to Pelinka.
Also, given that we have clear evidence now, the Celtics should absolutely be fined for tampering with Walker and forced to void his contract and forfeit the rest of the playoffs. Rules are rules, after all.
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