The last time a NBA sports agent was despised like Rich Paul is despised was in the ‘90’s when it was en vogue to emphatically dislike David Falk, who happened to be the agent of Michael Jordan. Like Falk, it’s not a coincidence that the agent of LeBron James has a lot of detractors around the league for efforting a LeBron James league, rather than allowing the league to evolve around James in an organic way.
Rich Paul’s peers have complaints. He didn’t graduate college so they are bitter he was certified, even though other agents didn’t go to college and are certified. One agent told NBA reporter Chris Broussard, “you can’t give a dentist a scalpel and say, go do heart surgery”, implying a sports agent is a job so complicated and intricate, if you don’t do it well, your client’s life will be over. News flash: a sports agent isn’t that important. But he is necessary in a league that has $7.4 billion dollars in revenue.
My favorite Rich Paul story is not how he and LeBron got together, over throwback jerseys that Paul was selling out his car. It’s that LeBron asked him for his SSN and then sent him a check. His first paycheck. And they never discussed a job, didn’t quite know how it would all work and fit in. Leap and the net will appear.
On each of LBJ’s stops, Cleveland twice, Miami and now Los Angeles, Rich Paul has been there, even telling LeBron what he doesn’t want to hear which is why LeBron wants him around. He wants to hear things he doesn’t want to hear.
The league is confused about Paul because they cling to this outdated version of LeBron and his passive-aggressiveness which is true, and how he has cherry picked the players he likes- also true- and erased the players that won’t help LeBron meet his goals- true again. But the problem with reflexive thinking is that you miss the point. Rich Paul is not an enabler to LeBron James wishes. He is way more dangerous to the league of rich white men than that. It is Rich Paul who is making the decisions and LeBron is following his lead.
Last night, on the televised Wolves-Pelicans game, Jeff Van Gundy took Paul’s side in the Anthony Davis fiasco. It is Van Gundy’s opinion that a player makes the decisions and that the agent works for him. It is Davis who needs to be slandered and excoriated, not Paul. Ok, I see the point in theory. The player does pay the agent a commission from the deals the agent negotiates. But for many players, the agent is father, brother, advisor. He has a point of view and exercises it in front of a willing audience. A lot of agents have powerful voices within a players inner circle and is trusted to make the best decision for the player. A lot of players are followers, or they give their agent equal share in the strategy. That, in a nutshell, is the Rich Paul-LeBron James story. They both need each other.
After the Pelicans played their zero sum game with the overeager Lakers, they had no interest in being maneuvered by Rich Paul. The Pels took a sadistic sort pleasure, if you believe the reports, in messing with the heads of Brandon Ingram and the like, Lakers players whose names were in the headlines so often Pacers fans chanted LeBron Is Going to Trade You at Brandon Ingram.
Davis is still in New Orleans because Rich Paul failed. He pushed the button and the Pelicans didn’t blink. Now that Davis is still in NOLA, the front office made a tactical and smart decision not to play him. Vindictive and petty, they already removed Davis from all the promotional and highlight reel videos. Playing him was a risk. Davis gets injured every time he seemingly blows his nose. To have him suit up is to challenge the basketball gods. An injury, and Davis may not be able to be packaged for Jayson Tatum in the summer. Not playing him was Pelicans justice, a reminder that they controlled him.
Rich Paul wasn’t having it and complained to the league office who told the Pelicans they had to play Davis (a new rule stating healthy players cannot sit out games) or get fined $100,000 per game. New Orleans is a small market. They can’t afford the $2 million it would cost them if Davis missed the rest of the season because they wanted him to. And so they played him against Minnesota and Anthony Davis did Anthony Davis things. 32 points. 9 rebounds. But he didn’t play in the 4th quarter.
Any good agent worth his salt would have notified the league office about the Pelicans plans. But at this point, Rich Paul is a mythical figure. Anything he does is seen through the prism of hero or villain. He is being blamed for the Pelicans having to play Davis. If Davis gets injured and his value plummets (should have taken the Lakers deal) Paul will be blamed for that too.
Rich Paul’s business behavior has elevated him to a level of importance the NBA hates just because he has an impact with current players that the NBA establishment cannot prevent, or break apart. He is a formidable adversary who (mostly) does his work behind the scenes. Owners and other agents may have mocked him for not being able to get the Davis-Lakers deal done but he has significant power in a league with billionaire owners. Underestimating him is a mistake.
He represents John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel, the Morris twins, Tristan Thompson and many others, along with LeBron James.
His 17 year relationship with LeBron that began because of Rich Paul hustle has thrived into a nearly billion dollar enterprise. He paid his dues at CAA, bringing in a new clients and negotiating deals, before starting Klutch Sports Group.
Back in the day, David Falk was hated but Falk was a lawyer, an insider who was an outsider who was an insider. Paul is a salesman who has made this career arc symptomatic of his aggressiveness, work ethic and forward thinking, not to mention business acumen.
His closest peer in the sports agent field (the hated have company) is Scott Boras who advocates on behalf of major league baseball clients. Boras has all the big time players and demands they are compensated at a rich rate. Same with Paul. He demands his players get what they deserve and he isn’t going to allow the Billionaire’s Boys Club to get in his way.