Another day, another wild story about the Lakers.
Ever since Los Angeles signed LeBron James in free agency last summer, the franchise has been a constant source of drama. Curious roster moves, ugly trade rumors, information leaks, a chaotic front office, clueless ownership – it’s easy to get lost down LA’s rabbit hole of despair.
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ESPN’s Baxter Holmes managed to put all of the pieces together in a terrific feature documenting the Lakers’ tumultuous 2018-19 season. While former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka played central roles in the dysfunction – with Johnson being accused of using “intimidation and bullying as a way of showing authority” by one front office staffer – there was another person outside of the organization who reportedly did plenty of damage to team chemistry.
James’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, didn’t hide his frustrations with now-former Lakers coach Luke Walton, going so far as to address his concerns with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Paul’s presence at the team’s facility during the 2017-18 season – he also represents Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has played in Los Angeles the past two years – “created an uneasy feeling among some coaching staffers,” according to Holmes. With it being widely known the Lakers would be targeting James in free agency, Paul was viewed as someone essentially evaluating if Walton was the right man for the job.
But the Paul effect went beyond coaching complaints. He reportedly rode on the Lakers’ charter plane multiple times during the 2018-19 season, an unusual occurrence that one agent described as “destructive.”
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In response to these allegations, Paul admitted he had taken the Lakers’ charter plane but denied every other claim. He told ESPN he “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.”
Alarm bells about the impact of Klutch Sports should have gone off as early as last September, when Pelicans star Anthony Davis signed with Paul. That opened the door for all kinds of Davis-to-the-Lakers speculation, and when Davis went public with a trade demand in late January, it was Paul who made the official statement to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss also suspected Paul of leaking information about a potential Davis trade, according to Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. Rumors spread about the Lakers being willing to trade any player except James in order to acquire Davis, and Buss believed Paul was the source.
Buss and Paul reportedly worked through their issues and appear to be on better terms now, but it’s not hard to see why Lakers coaches and players would want Paul to be less involved. He knows how to wield power for the benefit of his clients, but there was a ton of collateral damage.
It’s possible the Lakers land Davis in a trade, forming a legitimate dynamic duo with James and pushing Los Angeles back into the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Then the front office can remove itself from one of the most disappointing seasons in Lakers history and work toward a brighter future.
It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, though. Buss, Johnson and Pelinka all deserve blame for the state of the franchise. They enabled Paul, and he only helped make the mess even bigger.
Now it’s on Buss and Pelinka to clean it up.