There were a ton of explosive stories in Baxter Holmes’ Tuesday morning ESPN story on the dysfunction the Lakers have dealt with for the past year, but some of the juicier anecdotes receiving the most attention on social media are the ones concerning Rich Paul, the agent for LeBron James.
According to Holmes, Paul was not a fan of former Lakers head coach Luke Walton, or shy about expressing his preference for Tyronn Lue to just about anyone who would listen:
In November, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Maverick Carter, LeBron’s longtime business partner, met for lunch. James’ agent, Rich Paul, was seated at a nearby table, and at one point, approached Silver to complain about Walton, multiple sources familiar with the interaction told ESPN. Paul said he didn’t believe Walton was the right coach for the Lakers. Silver shrugged off the remark and asked whom Paul thought would be the right coach. Paul suggested Tyronn Lue.
The Lakers, of course, were not able to close the deal with Lue — for a variety of reasons — when they eventually fired Walton. James was reportedly not a fan of that failure to close.
But that’s all in the past now, and as noted above, it wasn’t just the NBA commissioner Paul was reportedly letting know about his distaste for Walton:
Paul was also letting it be known through back-channel conversations, including those with reporters, that he wasn’t on board with Walton. Paul criticized how Walton allotted minutes to players and his inconsistent lineups, which were partly the result of injuries and suspensions. Members of the Lakers’ coaching staff became aware of those conversations and wondered whether Johnson’s heated meeting with Walton was influenced by Paul.
I’m not a newsbreaker, but I will say the coaches were not the only people wondering if Paul influenced that specific meeting. But now that Walton is gone, none of that matters other than in the sense that it’s worth knowing just how much pull Paul (and by extension, James), have within the Lakers organization. According to Holmes’ report, at least enough for Paul to end up on the team plane at times during the year:
And so the perception existed among the Lakers’ coaching staff that Paul sought to oust Walton. And some players also believed, according to coaching staff members and those players’ agents, that Klutch Sports was working to trade them away for a superstar. Given those perceptions, one former Lakers player described Paul’s presence on the team charter as a “culture killer.”
”Coaches know Rich is trying to get them fired, and players know Rich is trying to get them traded,” said one agent with ties to the Lakers, who called Paul’s presence on the plane “destructive.”
Holmes contacted Paul to address those allegations — he said most of them are false — and one of James’ other advisors also denied anything abnormal about what was going on:
When contacted by ESPN, Paul denied every allegation against him except riding on the team charter. Paul declined to publicly comment beyond those denials, providing a statement instead: “I understand my position. I respect all those in our industry. At the end of the day, all I can do is continue to do a job for my client. That’s it. I can’t worry about what somebody thinks, the perception. All I can do is work hard and continue down the path that I’m on.”
Adam Mendelsohn, a longtime media adviser to James, also provided a statement: “Rich’s access and influence is no different than any other elite agent. It’s a convenient narrative to suggest anonymously that it was unique to him. But anyone in the NBA knows that’s just how the NBA media game works.”
If we’re being real, Mendelsohn has a point. As noted this morning, none of this is tremendously surprising. We all knew that James, Paul and Klutch Sports have influence on the team. That’s fairly standard for a star player of James’ caliber and his camp.
It also may not be unprecedented, because we know that at the very least there are stories of James’ attempting to control the movements of his team charters going back to his stint with the Miami Heat (accounts that it’s worth noting James took exception with the phrasing of, if not necessarily the content). If Paul was riding around with the team, that’s not exactly a shocker, even if it is a fun rumor for fans to gossip about.
Now, the real question is, was that as toxic to the Lakers as this report paints it? We ultimately can’t know for certain, although the way the team fell apart around the trade deadline would certainly seem to suggest as much. Regardless though, it’s worth noting that Paul denied all of this, and even if you don’t buy that, some of this stuff is a matter of perspective.
If you’re a coach who knows or thinks a franchise player’s agent doesn’t like you, of course you’re not going to like having them around. Still, it’s worth noting that Walton still chose to let Paul on the plane. If you’re a player on the trade block for Anthony Davis, of course it’s probably weird to have his agent around the team. That doesn’t mean there was anything nefarious, or even all that abnormal in this specific part of that wide-ranging exposure of the Lakers’ issues. There is plenty to actually worry about, and right now, this honestly seems to be pretty low on the list of things to actually be concerned with if you take a step back and really think about it.
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