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Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson under investigation for tampering with Paul George

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The NBA announced Sunday that the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson are under investigation for tampering with Paul George to faciliate his exit from the Indiana Pacers.

“You can’t just say, ‘Hey, I want you to come to the Lakers,’ even though I’ll be wink-winking like, ‘You know what that means, right?’”

These were the words cackled by Magic Johnson on the Jimmy Kimmel show that has now led to a possible tampering charge for the Lakers.

The NBA confirmed Sunday that it has opened an investigation into the Los Angeles Lakers for tampering with Paul George at the request of his former team, the Indiana Pacers. The investigation was first reported by freelance Hall of Fame reporter Peter Vescey Saturday evening.

The NBA made the announcement minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed Vescey’s report and specified that the investigation is focused on communication between Lakers President of Basketball Operations and George. The league confirmed there is an ongoing investigation and that no findings have been made thus far.

From the NBA:

“At the request of the Indiana Pacers, the NBA opened an investigation into alleged tampering by the Los Angeles Lakers. The independent investigation is being conducted by the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The Lakers have been cooperative and, at this point, no findings have been made. We have asked both teams to refrain from commenting all the investigation is ongoing.”

The smoking gun of the investigation is Magic’s appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show on April 20 this year, where Kimmel asked Magic about tampering and Johnson inexplicably joked that he would still subtly tamper after going to “Tampering school.”

"What constitutes tampering?" Kimmel asked Magic. "Like, if you're on vacation and you run into Paul George, are you not allowed to speak to him?"

"No, we're going to 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'm going to be wink, winking like, you know what that means, right?"

The league has hired Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the same firm that handled the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal a decade ago and served as outside counsel in the Donald Sterling investigation. This track record indicates the seriousness of the investigation, which will involve interviews with teams, players, and agents even tangentially connected to the situation. While the comments made by Magic is not sufficient evidence to be guilty of tampering, the investigation could still uncover further evidence.

Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript reports the Pacers were planning to file tampering charges even before they traded George. George was eventually traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder on June 30 for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George will be eligible to sign a four-year, $130 million deal with the Lakers in free agency next year, with a long-rumored partnership with LeBron James potentially coming together.

The well was poisoned with George well before the trade. When George;s agent, Aaron Mintz, informed the Pacers in mid-June that George would not return to Indiana, it was leaked with a death-blow caveat that he wanted to join the Lakers when he becomes a free agent next summer.

This destroyed his trade value, as it went from a buyer’s market after a typical trade request to a bear market when most teams were scared off from offering much of value. George is from LA and lives there during the offseason, making it apparent to the league that this rumor was likely to come to fruition.

The Celtics were naturally seen as a probable pursuant, with their plethora of valued assets and a clear need for George. There have been reports and whispers that Boston was involved in trade talks, but apparently never reached the precipice of a deal.

There have been recent tampering scandals in the past, most notably in 2013 when three teams were fined for publicly promoting the possibility of signing Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. Most egregiously, the Atlanta Hawks sent an email to season ticket holders promoting that they may sign the two and that fans should buy tickets now.

Tampering is defined and prohibited under Article 35A(e) of the NBA Constitution, stating it is a violation of league rules for any person affiliated with an NBA team to directly or indirectly entice, induce, or persuade, or attempt to entice, induce or persuade any person under contract with another team.

Among the potential fines, suspensions, and draft pick forfeitures, the most vital and draconian punishment would be prohibiting or limiting the targeted party – Paul George – from joining the offending team. This would be a significant punishment that would sail the league into unchartered territory and is an unlikely outcome even if the Lakers are found guilty of significant tampering. If the Lakers were to be punished by forfeiting a draft pick, it would most likely be the next pick they currently own and not affect the Celtics.

The precedent in 2013 was established for simply fines to the offending teams, although these were all for public statements that appear to be relatively innocent, rather than a covert effort to directly facilitate a move as has been speculated between Magic and George.