A lawsuit filed on Dec. 8 in Los Angeles Superior Court has triggered the latest NBA investigation into possible tampering by the Los Angeles Clippers in their July 2019 free agent signing of Kawhi Leonard. Clippers consultant and Hall of Famer Jerry West is accused of offering to pay L.A. resident Johnny Wilkes $2.5 million in exchange for obtaining illicit influence over Leonard’s decision.
This is the third major tampering controversy stemming from the Leonard signing. In May 2019, the league fined the Clippers $50,000 after then-head coach Doc Rivers, while on an ESPN broadcast, described Leonard as “the most like [Michael] Jordan that we’ve seen.” Several months later, unproven rumors surfaced that Leonard’s uncle and advisor, Dennis Robertson (also known as “Uncle Dennis”), had informed teams that in order to sign Leonard, they would have to pay Robertson as well.
Wilkes v. Clippers & West and the league’s investigation will run parallel to one another. Each will attempt to accomplish related, but different tasks. Wilkes seeks to prove that he’s owed $2.5 million, while the league wants to know if tampering occurred.
Unpacking the Lawsuit
The complaint’s retelling of history includes eye-catching allegations. One concerns Wilkes’s alleged meeting with West and two other men (Sam Watson and Jim Gray) at the Staples Center on Apr. 10, 2019. The meeting, supposedly arranged by West and his colleagues, was arranged “for the sole purpose of asking Wilkes’s assistance with getting Kawhi Leonard to sign with the Clippers.” The meeting appeared successful; the group is portrayed in the complaint as regularly communicating thereafter.
At the time, Leonard was under contract with the Toronto Raptors. He would go on lead the Raptors to an NBA title in June. Leonard was also set to become a free agent on July 1. As explained more fully below, timing mattered. NBA tampering rules prevented teams from communicating with pending free agents or their representatives until June 29. Actual negotiations couldn’t begin until June 30.
The complaint’s account also draws attention to June 28, when West and Wilkes allegedly spoke by phone. West, the complaint charges, “asked for Wilkes’s assistance in getting Kawhi Leonard to sign with the Clippers.” Wilkes says he agreed so long as West and the Clippers committed to paying Wilkes $2.5 million “for his services.” Wilkes contends that West “assured” him those terms were acceptable.
Then Wilkes “went to work.” Among other “services” rendered as an intermediary between Robertson and the Clippers, Wilkes supposedly put West in touch with Robertson and warned the Clippers that they needed to acquire Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George in order to assuage Leonard. The complaint also references voicemails and texts exchanged between West and Wilkes wherein West expressed worry about Leonard potentially joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Clippers won the pursuit when they signed Leonard to a three-year, $103 million contract on July 7. Wilkes says he joined West and other Clippers officials at a celebration held two weeks later at the posh e. baldi restaurant in Beverly Hills, where Wilkes reminded West about their deal. As told by Wilkes’s attorneys, West “reconfirmed that he and the Clippers” would pay the $2.5 million. To that end, West allegedly instructed Wilkes to “type his request for payment and email it to Gray.” Wilkes says he followed those instructions.
But Wilkes was never paid. His attorneys complain that had Wilkes known the Clippers “would not honor” their agreement, he “would not have devoted his time” to helping the franchise. The attorneys describe West and the Clippers as engaging in “despicable” conduct and subjecting Wilkes “to cruel and unjust hardship.”
The lawsuit demands a jury trial. It contains seven claims, one of which is breach of contract. Under California law, oral contracts are generally enforceable so long as they are performed within one year and reflect a meeting of the minds. Other claims concern bad faith, misrepresentation, false promises and unfair business practices. To prove them, Wilkes must establish that he relied on deception to his detriment.
Wilkes’s case would be enhanced if he preserved voicemails, texts and other electronic evidence. Potential sworn testimony by Wilkes—his complaint is unverified, meaning he didn’t swear, under oath and at risk of being criminally charged with perjury, to his assertions’ truthfulness—and that by West, Leonard, Robertson and other witnesses would further shed light.
In a statement, the Clippers maintain the lawsuit is “baseless” and “replete with inaccuracies.” West also forcefully denies engaging “in any improper conduct.” Leonard, in a postgame interview with reporters after his team’s Dec. 17 preseason game against the Utah Jazz, dismissed the role of Wilkes, saying “that has nothing to do with me swaying my mind to go somewhere.” The Clippers star also grumbled that “people try to find any way to get some money.”
The NBA’s investigation
The NBA has a fiduciary duty to investigate credible allegations of tampering, an unauthorized practice that supplies an unfair advantage. The league’s probe will center on Article 35A of the NBA constitution, which forbids any attempt to entice, induce or persuade a person who is under contract with another team to join the tampering team. The word “attempt” is crucial: Even if Leonard wasn’t influenced by Wilkes, West and the Clippers would still be guilty of tampering if they made an attempt.
Commissioner Adam Silver oversees league investigations. As a private organization, the NBA has a more limited arsenal of investigative powers than a police force or government agency. The league neither possesses subpoena power nor can compel sworn testimony. It therefore can’t require Wilkes to meet for an interview or oblige him to share emails, texts, voicemails and other potentially relevant evidence. Remember, Wilkes’s goal is to win the lawsuit—and collect monetary damages. Any cooperation he or his attorneys lend would be geared accordingly. Silver punishing West and the Clippers wouldn’t remedy Wilkes.
Another possible challenge for the NBA: If the Clippers reach an out-of-court settlement with Wilkes, the settlement could contain a non-disclosure clause and written commitment to refrain from any communication with NBA investigators.
While the league has limited suasion over Wilkes, it enjoys contractual authority over franchises and their employees. West and Leonard, for instance, could be punished for refusing to cooperate in a league investigation. Anyone accused of tampering will have an opportunity to defend themselves in a league hearing.
If Silver finds West and the Clippers are guilty, he could impose a wide range of penalties. They include definite or indefinite suspensions of West and other Clippers officials; forfeiture of Clippers draft picks; transfer of Clippers draft picks to the Raptors; fines of up to $10 million, with all or some of that amount (at the discretion of Silver) going to the Raptors; and—unlikely to be sure—determining the Clippers can no longer employ Leonard.
Silver’s typical punishment for tampering has been fines. Last year, he fined Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry $25,000 for commenting on Anthony Davis, who played for the New Orleans Pelicans at the time. Silver has also fined the Lakers twice in recent years, including a $500,000 penalty for general manager Rob Pelinka contacting George’s representatives while he was under contract with the Indiana Pacers and a $50,000 fine for then-team president Magic Johnson comparing Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo to himself. Other examples since 2000 include fines for Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying he wanted the Mavs to sign then-Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and for the Atlanta Hawks mailing a letter referencing prospective free agents to season ticket holders.
The most severe tampering punishment occurred in 1995, when the Miami Heat successfully recruited Pat Riley, who was then employed as head coach of the New York Knicks, to become their coach and team president. The controversy was resolved by the Heat sending a first-round pick to the Knicks.
Last year the NBA announced heightened penalties for tampering. Although the alleged tampering with Leonard would have occurred before this policy change, Silver has wide discretion. If the commissioner concludes that the Clippers are guilty, he could use the opportunity to send a message. The punishment could be the most severe to date.