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Winderman: The fuzzy line of NBA talk, tampering

Feb 10, 2012, 1:11 PM EDT

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Sorry, just not sure how this works anymore, when it comes to what is tampering what is innocent conversation, and, frankly what is NBA protocol and civility.

Perhaps because Kobe Bryant and LeBron James aren’t impending free agents, it’s all simply viewed as innocuous.

So Larry Bird, in his role as Pacers president, talks freely about Kobe being the player he’d want at his side if winning was the priority, but LeBron as the choice if it came to having fun on the court. Oh, and he says LeBron, by far, is the best player in the game today.

Kobe follows up by saying that if he was forming the league’s top duo, his choice for a partner would be LeBron.

Again innocent, candid, innocuous fun.

But what if Bird, whose team could be well-positioned in 2012 free agency, substituted Dwight Howard, a potential impending free agent, when he instead used the names of Kobe and LeBron on that ESPN podcast?

And what if Kobe, who has spoken openly of seeking a roster upgrade, had used Dwight’s name during his interview with ESPN’s Los Angeles radio affiliate, instead of LeBron?

Innocent, candid, innocuous fun then?

Or is this merely how it goes now with every comment parsed as if spoken in some type of code, including James’ reactions to the actions of others?

As a player, there are limitations of league influence on Bryant, similar to those who wanted a review of the plotting of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in advance of 2010 free agency.

With an executive, there is more significant oversight.

The point being that there often is an agenda behind the words, particularly as the trading deadline and then free agency approach. Perhaps not in these cases, but certainly in others.

Bryant mentioned how the “pieces would fit” with LeBron, as he very much would like Mitch Kupchak to get pieces to fit.

Bird spoke as a former player in regards to Kobe and LeBron, but also as an executive positioned for a major franchise makeover.

In David Stern’s world, there are understood limitations when it comes to freedom of speech. Just ask Mark Cuban.

These comments clearly didn’t go too far, although some might not say the same about LeBron’s tongue-in-cheek response to the blame game.

On one hand, in this age of social media, there is plenty to be said about hearing directly from the greats, of how the minds of Bird, LeBron and Kobe, and, yes, even Kendrick Perkins work.

On the other hand, perhaps such comparative lip-ature is better reserved for the offseason, when it doesn’t detract from the games, raise eyebrows about ultimate intent.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at @IraHeatBeat.

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