It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have been heavily influenced by LeBron James’ camp in much of their decision making. In particular, they have continuously tried to curtail favor with James’ agent and friend, Rich Paul.
In fact, according to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, the team has given Paul unprecedented access to the organization over the last two years. At first, it was doing him favors to ensure James’ eventual move to LA. Then, it was to keep LeBron happy despite the organization’s missteps in creating a contender around him.
According to Holmes, that access had negative effects for nearly everyone else in the organization. Players and coaches were reportedly made uncomfortable by Paul’s presence, knowing that their jobs were in danger if it would appease LeBron’s representative.
Paul was also letting it be known through back-channel conversations, including those with reporters, that he wasn’t on board with [Luke] 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.
Coaching staff and others close to the team told ESPN there would continue to be an increased presence by Paul and Klutch Sports in ways that seemed strange to them. For instance, three Lakers sources familiar with team travel details independently told ESPN that Paul rode on the Lakers’ charter plane on multiple occasions this season, an act that front-office executives, other NBA general managers and other agents around the league said is highly unusual — if not unheard of.
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.”
Even before this last season, however, Paul’s influence within the Lakers organization was large. The team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a huge one-year contract after he had run out of other options. Then, they refused to suspend him or bench him when he was placed in a work-release program as a result of a parole violation stemming from a DUI arrest that happened before he joined the Lakers. According to Holmes, some members of the organization were uncomfortable with that decision.
Of course, it’s important to note that other agents and team staffers talking about Paul are not coming from an unbiased standpoint. They have something to gain from him looking bad. Regardless, Paul is working for a client in LeBron and everything he is doing is within his job description.
The real issue is the culture that the Lakers built under Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, which has consistently made employees of every level uncomfortable and anxious. Over the last two years, it has been clear that no one within the organization has had job security from Walton being berated by Magic just two weeks into the season to every young player being publicly put on the trading block.
Rich Paul’s obscene influence isn’t new or even necessarily a bad thing. The Lakers should be doing everything to make LeBron happy and at this point, he is probably their only chance at making things right this summer.
But in the same light, the organization has done nothing to assure other members of the team that their place is safe and that they have a role moving forward. It’s no wonder why the team underperformed.