What Anthony Davis Teaming Up With LeBron James on the Lakers Means for the NBA
NBA superagent Rich Paul and his biggest client, King James, managed to game the system and bring AD to L.A. And that’s a good thing, writes Corbin Smith.
Today, not a whole 48 hours after the end of the NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans agreed in principle on a trade that would send star forward Anthony Davis to Southern California for a massive package of three first-round draft picks, point guard (and daddy’s boy) Lonzo Ball, forward Brandon Ingram, and shooting guard Josh Hart.
The trade comes after a wild, unproductive year for both squads. In New Orleans, Davis and his agent, Rich Paul, were actively angling to get Davis off their underachieving squad and into a market that anyone paid attention to. The Lakers, on the other hand, managed to land LeBron James, the best player of his generation, then found their buzz killed when they spent all year slogging along with a supporting cast of young guys and the nuttiest dudes they could possibly manage to sign.
The Lakers’ front office, trying at their first decent team since Dwight Howard’s disastrous stint, seemed completely outmatched in every way. Their young players were stumbling about like the walking dead, worried they would get traded for Davis at any minute. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka had an idiosyncratic attitude toward team-building, opting to sign big names (Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson) instead of getting anyone who actually fit with James. Everyone seemed to want Luke Walton to get fired at the soonest convenience. Magic Johnson, serving as the team’s president, was getting hit with tampering violations from the league office, and also, according to reports, kind of terrorized everyone who worked in basketball operations. Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s former agent who became the team’s GM seemingly because owner Jeanie Buss was comfortable with him, seemed to be out of his depth. He also told weird lies about Heath Ledger meeting with Kobe even though Ledger had been dead for some time.
But they had James, and for a while, they were coming close to making it work…right until the King’s groin acted up, and the team’s fortunes sunk into the ocean. The team then became a laughingstock. Magic Johnson resigned so he could tweet more. Everyone was left dumbfounded, wondering what the hell was next. Were these young players, who almost all underperformed, any good? Was the team’s management anywhere close to having the chops to make a contender?
In trading a whole giant steaming heap of youth and picks for Davis, the Lakers have made a lot of those short-term questions completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if Brandon Ingram fulfills the potential of his slender frame, if Lonzo Ball finds a shot to compliment his extraordinary playmaking skillset. They are gone now and replaced with Davis, an NBA star fully manifest, an offensive and defensive force who will fit like a glove with James, who loves playing with players who can hover near his stratospheric talent. If Davis re-signs, which seems very likely, it will almost certainly have been worth everything they gave up.
That doesn’t let the organization off the hook entirely, though. The Lakers will have a massive $32 million cap slot open this summer, and they will have to exhibit discipline and taste the likes of which they simply have not for nearly a decade. With the Warriors riddled with injuries and effectively sidelined from true contention next year and nearly everyone else in the West saddled with some strange deficit or another, the Lakers’ best shot at the title will come immediately. In sending nearly every upside-potent asset they have off to New Orleans in exchange for Davis, the Lakers are placing a bet on themselves—a bet that they won’t mess it up again next year, that they can get this shit under control to build and operate a contending team around James and Davis on the fly.
Before the trade went down, Charles Barkley appeared on The Rich Eisen Show and spoke about Rich Paul and his agency Klutch Sports’ role in getting Anthony Davis out of New Orleans and into Forum Blue and Gold. “He’s trying to bail out LeBron. LeBron went to a bad situation with the Lakers and he’s trying to get one of his clients to go there. Rich is a good guy, but they’re trying to force the NBA… I don’t agree with agents telling people where their players need to go. I think as an agent you can say my player wanna be traded, but we’ve got to the point now where he just says, ‘No, my player’s got to go to a certain team, or he’s only gonna play for one year… I know players have always requested trades, we never got to the point where some guys have so much power that they can dictate where they were traded to.”
Rich Paul and James came into the NBA together. He was LeBron’s agent when LeBron was at CAA, and when Paul left to found Klutch Sports, James came along. Paul has, since then, leveraged James’s influence to sign all kinds of important NBA clients (in addition to James and Davis, Klutch represents Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, and, blessedly, J.R. Smith.) and has not been shy about using whatever leverage he can possibly scrounge up to make his clients happy and prosperous.
The question of Davis’s agency in all this is really very strange. It seems totally reasonable that he independently wanted to go to the Lakers, and Paul did whatever he could to make that happen. But Barkley’s sentiment has a kind of cold logic. The Lakers were a shit show, they needed a bailout, and Klutch did everything they could to engineer that bailout by irritating New Orleans and the Lakers so much that they caved and made the roster move of Paul’s most important client’s dreams materialize.
But there’s a question here that people in the sports media seem unwilling to ask: Who gives a shit?
Why shouldn’t James seek to put pressure on his team like this? What are we preserving, exactly, if we shame players and agencies into honoring the moral construct of a contract you’re forced to sign when you’re drafted, of a team you are compelled to play for by the institution of the draft, an absurd piece of work that shuffles players into broke-dick organizations and markets which, frankly, tend to prefer football? Aside from pure Foucauldian deference to the moral authority of capital, who really cares if LeBron is acting as a puppet-master in his own best interest, playing chess and delivering high-end players into the warm and loving arms of his squad? Why do we have so much concern for the feelings of the billionaires who own these teams and the fan bases whose lives are only marginally affected by their performance, and so little for the players, whose short careers are subject to the specter of a harsh, brutal ending every time they step on the court?
This week, Kevin Durant tore his Achilles in game 5 of the Finals. Durant was forced to spent the first half of his career playing in Oklahoma City, for a team that was tight with purse-strings and slavishly devoted to a point guard who was totally unconcerned with whether the offense ran through his far-superior teammate. Why did the opening years of his career have to be sacrificed on the altar of a draft that arbitrarily dictates fairness? If he could do it again, wouldn’t he have preferred to create a better situation for himself? Wouldn’t you have wanted to?
The Lakers fucked up really bad this year. LeBron, in exercising his power and acting in his own best interests, has served himself and the organization by bailing them out of their shitty decisions and crummy hires and signings wholesale, giving the team a hard reset and a chance to contend in spite of themselves. What if every player and agent were willing to exercise that kind of power? Why should any player have to toil away needlessly for a crap organization if they can prevent it?
The question of whether the Lakers can take advantage of the patch Davis and Paul and James have managed to build and make something of it hasn’t been answered yet. But the idea that LeBron was just supposed to go down with the ship without flexing the authority he has is asinine. Why should power only be sanctioned when it’s being utilized by ownership? Gayle Benson can’t ball. Why should anyone care what she thinks?