On Sunday, the NBA confirmed that the league had opened an investigation into the Los Angeles Lakers for tampering and hired the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to conduct an independent investigation at the request of the Indiana Pacers.
Longtime NBA reporter Peter Vecsey originally broke the story on Saturday before the NBA's press release confirmed the investigation on Sunday. Vecsey said both Johnson and Lakers president Jeanie Buss would be interviewed by the independent law firm. Vescey also shared that the investigation was linked to Paul George.
Why would the Pacers want the Lakers to be punished?
Indiana traded away George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis earlier in the summer, which was largely viewed as a heist for the Thunder. Entering the final year of his contract, George refused to sign an extension and multiple sources shared that he told the Pacers that he would not be returning to the team, with the loud rumor that he was on his way to the Lakers in the summer of 2018.
As such, the Pacers had little option but to trade away the 27-year-old and struggled to get near equal value for the four-time All-Star. In asking the NBA to investigate the Lakers for tampering with George while he was under contract with the Pacers, the team automatically saves face after making a lopsided trade. Regardless of what the final results of the case are, the Pacers are effectively blaming the Lakers for Paul's exit.
One could even view this as a bitter move, as tampering is a difficult charge to prove because it would likely occur as a conversation rather than in written, traceable form.
For example, the Houston Rockets and Chris Paul moved rather quickly to work out the details of his trade away from the LA Clippers earlier in the summer. Considering Paul was under contract with the Clippers and had to opt into another year of his contract to make the trade possible, one would find it difficult to imagine Paul agreeing to an extra year without illegally discussing the trade with the Rockets and only then opting into the extra year of his contract with the Clippers.
Pursuing and proving tampering, however, is an entirely different matter.
The primary difference between the two cases is that the Clippers have not pushed the NBA to investigate the matter because proving tampering in the NBA is a difficult endevour. In the Lakers' case, the Pacers requested the NBA to take a look and, frankly, the Pacers have nothing to lose from taking that step.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne followed up on Vescey's report and stated that "the possibility of impermissible contact" between Johnson and George was the focus of the investigation, but again, no one seems to be clear on whether any evidence can or will corroborate the allegations.
The Lakers appear to be denying the allegations, complying with the investigation and reserving comment under instruction from the NBA.
"As the NBA's statement made clear, we cannot comment about the specifics of any ongoing investigation," Lakers director of media relations Alison Bogli said in a statement released on Sunday. "We can confirm, however, that we are cooperating fully with the NBA in the hope of clearing our name as soon as possible."
According to Wojnarowski and Shelburne, if sufficient evidence is found, the Lakers could face fines up to $5 million, loss of draft picks, suspension of the offenders or restrictions on acquiring George when he hits free agency in the summer of 2018.
Of all those punishments, the monetary fine would be least damaging, but a suspension of an executive like Johnson at this early stage of his tenure with the Lakers could hurt a team that is dead set on making major moves and improving in a hurry over the summer of 2018. Johnson's presence is a big part of the Lakers' pitch, and the five-time NBA champion is probably the most key figure in attracting prospective free agents to the Lakers. Being restricted from signing George, assuming he wants to come to LA, would also be a major blow and would likely only be enforced if the investigation caught the Lakers with their arms elbow deep in the cookie jar.
No official timeline has been set on the investigation, but Johnson was last pictured vacationing in Italy as recently as Saturday.