LeBron gets Love, but does he get away with tampering?

Bert A. Ramirez
LeBron gets Love, but does he get away with tampering?
LeBron James may get his wish to play with Kevin Love in Cleveland, but did he violate the league's tampering policy to get him there?

Unless the NBA blocks it, the deal that will send Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland in exchange for this year’s top overall pick Andrew Wiggins, 2013 counterpart Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round pick will be formalized by August 23, one month after the 30-day moratorium on trading a rookie (in this case Wiggins) after he’s been signed lapses.

But the deal, whether it pushes through or not, is not without its controversy, especially after two incidents that not a few people claim constituted a violation of the league’s tampering rules took place.

First, it was reported that LeBron James had reached out to Love himself, inviting him to come and play with him in Cleveland. Everybody knew of course that Love is an impending free agent after the 2015 season, and he has made no secret that he wants out of Minnesota after six playoff-less years in the North Star State, the last four while serving as its franchise star. But league rules also prohibit anyone – player, front-office executive or coach – from making any kind of overture on a player still under contract with another team, something that James had supposedly done.

“LeBron James has reached out to tell Kevin Love of his desire for them to play together with the Cavaliers, front office sources tell Yahoo,” tweeted Adrian Wojnarowski on July 17, 2014. Wojnarowski, of course, is acknowledged as the most informed journalist covering the league, someone who, because of his deep connections, gets wind of every small development in it before many of his colleagues in the sports media even smell of the next thing taking shape. If former New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey was the DPA (deep penetration agent) of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, then Wojo is his current-day version of it. 

One can thus presume, at the very least, there was contact between James and Love, as demonstrated by subsequent events that suddenly showed Love working out his move to Cleveland. Sam Amico of FOX Sports Ohio reported later in July that Love told his agent Jeff Schwartz that he wanted to be traded to Cleveland, an idea that wasn’t even a whiff in the air when the three-time All-Star visited Boston in late May or when Golden State appeared to be the frontrunner in the race to acquire Love if it only agreed to include sharpshooting guard Klay Thompson as part of the deal. The idea, of course, went into overdrive after James’ effort to reach out to Love following his homecoming to his home state franchise. Who wouldn’t, after all, want to play with the league’s best player and get a chance to contend for a title?  Except when the method used to do it of course goes against the rule.

For the record, the NBA’s tampering rule states, “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. The NBA may impose suspensions and/or fines up to $50,000 if tampering is discovered, however, the league’s practice has been to wait until a team lodges a complaint before investigating (but that’s not to say they don’t continue to monitor the league and won’t take action independently if they discover that tampering has occurred).”

“Tell me that’s not EXACTLY what LeBron did according to Woj,” John Karalis of RedsArmy.com said.  “He’s a player directly enticing or persuading a player who is under contract with another team in order to negotiate for his services.”

But, okay, thanks to James’ reaching out, and the fact that the Timberwolves this time appeared to be getting the pieces that they felt would be commensurate to losing Love, they then relented to allowing the Cavaliers to speak to Love and his representatives “in an introductory fashion,” as sources put it. 

In doing so, however, the two teams seemed to have committed another faux pas, a second violation of league rules, when they supposedly reached a “firm agreement” whereby Love is supposed to “opt out of his contract in 2015 and re-sign with the Cavaliers on a five-year, $120 million-plus contract extension.”  And it was again Wojnarowski who reported the “firm agreement” on August 7.  

That supposed deal between Love and Cleveland, with the two parties now free to talk terms even on a secret basis, is, of course, a violation of league rules as such discussions can’t legally take place even while a trade can’t yet be consummated because of the 30-day moratorium. “Under NBA rules, such an agreement would be illegal, and, if proven, it potentially could be grounds for the league to block this trade and dole out punishment to both teams,” Josh Hill of Sports Illustrated’s FanSided.com says.  “It’s also against league rules to agree to a trade that involves players who can’t be traded yet, which may become a problem later in the month for the status of the trade.”

But since Cleveland and Minnesota seem to have pushed the envelope too far, they must be just confident that nobody – if ever there’s any team that dares challenge the trade – holds a concrete proof that can force the league to veto the Love-for-Wiggins deal in the first place.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders says the chances of the Love trade being blocked on the basis of a prior contract agreement is “fairly low.

“I expect all parties to deny the level of future contract talk,” he says.  

That doesn’t mean, however, that the future contract agreement did not, indeed, take place, and one can only wonder how much the NBA is going to look the other way whenever James or his team is the one involved. There’s been a growing perception, no doubt fostered during former commissioner David Stern’s tenure, that the league practices a double standard when it comes to James.  

The Cavaliers then, correctly it seems, filed tampering charges in 2010 when James took his talents to South Beach to join up with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That complaint was never heeded even when it was obvious there was collusion between the three players while James was still under contract with Cleveland and Bosh with Toronto. This was simply because no document could prove they had laid the groundwork for their union as early as the time they played on the 2008 US Olympic team. Miami president Pat Riley was also able to cover up all possible loopholes to make it appear the recruitment didn’t take place until James’ and Bosh’s contracts had run out. 

“If this doesn’t get blocked then it goes to show the NBA is rigged to produce the most hype and profit for all those involved,” American poster Orlando Pizarro, obviously an LA Laker fan, fumed about the projected Love trade. “You robbed CP3 of a chance at a ring with Mamba but you’re going to allow that finger-pointing douche to be traded to a team where the best player in the world is.”

“They blocked Chris Paul trade to the Lakers, Kevin Love trade should be blocked as well,” another fan, Jimmy Anderson, chimed in.

The Paul trade being referred to, of course, was the deal Stern blocked in December 2011 on the strength of the league owning the then-Hornets (now Pelicans) at the time, saying that the trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers and brought New Orleans Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, a still-budding Goran Dragic as well as a first-round pick and sent Pau Gasol to Houston was detrimental to the then-league-owned club. Paul of course eventually got traded to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick in a reconfigured deal that might have looked better at the time but eventually turned out bad for New Orleans.

Another agreement the NBA rescinded also involved Minnesota in 2000, when Stern voided a one-year, $2.5 million contract former No. 1 pick Joe Smith signed with a side, under-the-table agreement that would have given him up to $86 million after the expiration of this one-year deal, actually the third he had signed with the T-Wolves. Although then-Wolves GM Kevin McHale claimed many other teams did it as well, and he had no knowledge of the deal that was orchestrated by owner Glen Taylor, the deal was discovered when Smith’s agents, Eric Fleisher and Andrew Miller, had a falling out and engaged in a lawsuit. This unearthed many documents that included Smith’s illegal contract, which, unlike those made by other teams, was in writing. And since under-the-table agreements were illegal, the league came down hard on Minnesota, fining the team $3.5 million, making it forfeit its next five first-round draft picks, a number later reduced to four, and suspending Taylor for about a year.

Just this week, the league fined Toronto $25,000 for tampering after rapper Drake, in a concert attended by Kevin Durant in Toronto, told the Oklahoma City super forward the Raptors want him in Canada when he becomes a free agent in 2016 and urged the crowd to show Durant the love. Drake is the Raptors’ “global ambassador.”

Back in 2010, just before LeBron went to Miami, Dallas owner Mark Cuban was also fined $100,000 for a statement made in an interview with CNN, which supposedly violated anti-tampering rules, in which he said he hoped James would force a sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers so his Mavericks would have a shot at him. Cuban was lucky to get off lightly as the maximum penalty was a $5 million fine and the prohibition to pursue James if he did become a free agent. Stern had earlier sent a memo to all 30 teams two years before that telling them to decline comment about potential free agents when asked by the media.

Of course, using that standard then employed by the league, it would be fairly easy to deduce that some kind of illegal acts have indeed been committed, either by James, Cleveland, Minnesota or all the parties concerned. But is there a concrete evidence that would stand in court, something that would prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt? That, of course, isn’t needed in a case like this. Only the commissioner, in this case Adam Silver, needs to decide if there are enough grounds to believe there was a violation of the league’s rules, and it’s entirely arbitrary on his part whether to declare the circumstances surrounding the Love-for-Wiggins trade above board or not.

The conundrum, however, would come when the circumstances are later proven to have been fraudulent after Silver has let the deal go. This will happen if Love indeed opts out after the 2015 season and signs precisely the same contract that was said he has agreed to even before August 23, the earliest date a deal could be hammered out, could come. Would there be a reconsideration by Silver of his decision when the mistake would have already done damage to the integrity of the league? What, for instance, happens if the Cavs even win the 2015 championship with the obvious help of something that was illegally carried out?  Can something that has been done still be undone?

Everybody would have been trumped, of course. 

But, as guys like Kyler and Mark Vandeusen of LucidSportsFan.com said, a block of the deal is not likely to happen mainly because it is James and his team that are involved. “I guess the NBA doesn’t care so much when it’s his royal highness King James doing whatever he wants to,” Vandeusen said.

“The NBA is his b…h! What he wants he gets even if done illegally,” Filipino basketball buff Jaims Castillo raged. “At least (Boston Celtics guard) Rajon (Rondo) avoided speculations before when they (Rondo and Love) met at Fenway. But LBJ blatantly tweeted and said during interviews he wanted Love!”

Dan Devine, writing for Yahoo Sports’ popular “Ball Don’t Lie,” simply said, “The story of the NBA summer of 2014 thus far is that LeBron James gets what he wants. Whether what he’s gotten during the offseason is enough to once again hoist the O’Brien trophy, though, is another story altogether.” 


Part of the disappointment on the part of those who were heartened and were ready to forgive LeBron James for “The Decision” in 2010 stems from his seeming turnabout from an admission in his homecoming essay in Sports Illustrated that he was willing to go through the process of mentoring his young Cleveland teammates, which presumably included the rookie he’s now willing to lose to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love – Andrew Wiggins – for them to grow before the Cavs can contend for a championship.

“We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010,” James said in his much-applauded essay. “My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head.  But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.”

If one would look more closely, nowhere in the essay can be found the name of Wiggins, which is curious because he is the top overall pick in this year’s draft and is considered to have the biggest upside among this year’s rookies. That could lend credence to the view of some that James didn’t really come back to Cleveland without the assurance that he would have a powerhouse team that includes Love, despite his seemingly statesmanlike pronouncement in his message.

“I’m not completely buying this ‘I’m Coming Home’ thing from LeBron. I don’t think he goes back to Cleveland without assurances Love was coming,” @bballbreakdown tweets.

Another poster, Chuck Leno, says, “Just proves to me that LeBron has to have all the big names around him to win. He will never be capable of elevating younger guys to get better because he doesn’t give a s…t about them!” 

“LeBron is the player version of Phil Jackson: ready-made teams,” Kevin Dixon puts it.

Still, there are those who think James is just being practical in opting for Love over a talented youngster with unlimited potential like Wiggins. Dan Devine himself, in that “Ball Don’t Lie” piece, sees a limited window for winning championships that James has left. “LeBron… sees himself as a mentor now, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be part of a youth movement; he’s 11 years into his career, he’s got a shade under 40,000 combined regular-season and postseason minutes on his wheels, and he wants to do his mentoring while playing in postseason series between late May and mid-June.”  

The situation actually brings to mind a stunt James himself pulled off when he was still in his first Cleveland stint. When he went to Miami in 2010, he switched his No. 23, the number he’d always worn since he came into the league in 2003, into No. 6 purportedly to help honor Michael Jordan by permanently retiring his number across the league.

But as early as prior to the previous season, LeBron had started a campaign to have the league retire No. 23. “I just think what Michael Jordan has done for the game has to be recognized some way soon,” he then said. “There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn’t Michael Jordan first. He can’t get the logo (Hall of Famer Jerry West’s silhouette that was used as NBA logo), and if he can’t, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23. I’m starting a petition, and I’ve got to get everyone in the NBA to sign it. Now, if I’m not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it.”

James then proceeded to wear No. 23 all season long, and only changed numbers when he did get to South Beach. The petition? It’s been in the backburner ever since.

Perhaps the problem with all this is that some people have been less-than-sincere and honest. Many of us of course know the dynamics of the image-building process usually employed by celebrities, and that includes athletes. That being the case, James owes it to the public as well as to his fans to do away with all the malarkey and double-speak, dump the heavy stuff and fancy thoughts, and call a spade a spade.  Talk, after all, is cheap, and the less talk one has, the lesser chances he’ll also have to get his foot caught in his own mouth.

SHORTSHOTS: Rudy Gay has been added to the Team USA pool following the injury that has sidelined Paul George.  John Wall, Bradley Beal and Paul Millsap have been cut from the pool, leaving 16 players still competing for 12 slots… Unknown to many, the Philippine Under-17 team is currently competing in the FIBA World Under-17 tournament in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.  The Filipino youngsters, probably the smallest in the tournament with an average height of 5-11, have lost by 10 points to Angola, by 20 to Greece and by 60 to the US… Becky Hammon, a charming 15-year veteran who is retiring from the San Antonio Stars of the WNBA after this season, became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history when the Spurs named her an assistant coach.  A personal favorite of mine, the 5-foot-6 Hammon, 37, is a six-time WNBA All-Star and impressed the Spurs brass with her knowledge of the game when she sat in during the Spurs’ practices while rehabilitating a left ACL tear… Hammon’s hiring followed an equally trail-blazing selection of Michele Roberts as the first female executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, the first to be so hired in any men’s sport.  Roberts, a litigation partner at the influential Washington, D.C. law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, received 32 of 36 votes from the players… Before Hammon’s hiring, a female had served as assistant coach in the NBA when Lisa Boyer did it under John Lucas in Cleveland in 2001, but Boyer only did it as a volunteer and did not sit on the Cavs bench or travel with the team… Cleveland and Indiana are competing for free agent Shawn Marion’s services.  The Cavs may have the edge, however, as Marion has expressed a desire to play for a contender. – Rappler.com


Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.


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