Back in the winter of 2019, when the Lakers and Pelicans were wrangling over the future of then-New Orleans star Anthony Davis, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley railed against the influence that Davis’ agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, was having over an increasingly ugly process.
“Don’t ruin your reputation as a great player and one of the nicest guys in the world,” Barkley said, hypothetically speaking to Davis. “Remember your agent works for you. You don’t work for him. They handled that situation wrong. It’s going to come back to bite them in the ass.”
It didn’t, in the end. But Barkley has, several times, piled on Paul and his top client—Lakers star LeBron James—for pushing the Davis deal and forcing the Pelicans into eventual submission. And there’s lingering resentment now, especially as another Klutch client, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons, threatens to skip training camp as he seeks a trade.
According to Barkley, Klutch was able to “bully the league” in the Davis-to-L.A. trade. Now, he says, they’re bullying the NBA again by pushing to get Simmons out of town.
But around the league, that is not necessarily the view. One GM told Heavy.com that Klutch gets unfairly targeted among a sea of agencies with outsize influence, and another executive pointed out that there is some revisionist history that goes along with the Davis-Pelicans-Lakers drama that winter.
Agents Pushing Their Clients’ Interests: ‘This Isn’t New’
Here’s what Barkley had to say about the subject, speaking on the Mike Missanelli Show on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
You know how that group works. They try to trade their players to where they want to. They do it the way they want to. Anthony Davis – they had better deals from Boston for Anthony Davis, and I think maybe even New York. And they’re like, ‘No, he’s gonna go to L.A. and play with LeBron. He’s not gonna play.’ They just bully the league. At some point, a team or the league got to stand up to say, ‘Wait a minute. I paid your guy. You can’t bully me to trade him and me taking some trash back.’
This has been consistent with Barkley’s Klutch criticism history. But look at the last 35 or so years of the NBA, and you will find the rise of power agents and their influences over various teams throughout the league, going back to David Falk and Michael Jordan, right through Arn Tellem and SFX for many years and on to CAA now.
Agents will always try to bully the league on behalf of their clients.
“I heard what Charles said about Klutch and you want to root for him and make Klutch into the ‘bad guy’ but, come on, you know this has been happening in the NBA for decades now,” one general manager said. “This isn’t new. They were very, very clumsy about the Davis trade, it all looked bad. But that was just bad optics. It was nothing new. It is a story that has happened 1,000 times and will happen 1,000 more. But it was LeBron, it was the Lakers, so it got blown up.”
Go back to the 2004-05 season, for an example. In the wake of the trade that sent Vince Carter from Toronto (where he was a franchise icon) to New Jersey. One of the pieces the Raptors were to get back from the Nets was center Alonzo Mourning. But Mourning and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, told the Raptors he simply wasn’t going to show up. And Mourning never did go to Toronto. Powerless to force him to come, the Raptors had no choice but to waive Mourning for nothing in return, allowing Mourning to sign in Miami.
After that season, Wechsler orchestrated one of the biggest deals of the time, a five-year, $70 million contract with Cleveland for Larry Hughes. His bad actions with the Raptors and Mourning had no consequences—he still was able to pull off an absolute coup of a contract for Hughes.
There are countless such stories in the annals of the NBA. The agent helps bully the league with one player, but the league still rewards the agent with another. What Klutch is doing is not new.
Was the Lakers’ Deal for Anthony Davis All That Bad?
In terms of public perception, fueled by Barkley and others, Paul, James and Davis are still paying the price for how the Davis trade unfolded. The story that lingers is that the Pelicans were the sympathetic, small-market team, and they were simply not allowed to negotiate with others for possible deals, left with no choice but to take a lousy offer from L.A.
But is that really true?
The notion that the Celtics or Knicks, as Barkley said, had better offers on the table is a stretch, at best. The Knicks could not possibly have had a better offer for Davis that year, because their best player was Tim Hardaway Jr. and they’d landed the No. 3 pick in the lottery. That meant the Pelicans could get R.J. Barrett but not surefire stars Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, who went No. 1 and 2 that year. There is no universe in which Hardaway Jr., Barrett and picks is a fair deal for Davis.
We’ll never know just what the Celtics offered for Davis because it did not come to that point. Perhaps Boston would have included Jayson Tatum—some have said they would have, but more have argued they would not—but it was a moot point because Davis’ camp was very public about not wanting to play for the Celtics. More likely, the Celtics would have offered up Jaylen Brown and a package of picks, which would have been a good package but probably not equal to the group the Lakers sent.
The Davis Trade Was a Boon for the Pelicans
The Lakers did not have to send that much, in the end. But they did.
“People want to see that trade (Anthony Davis) as the Lakers going in at gunpoint and just taking the guy they wanted and the poor little Pelicans getting nothing back,” another league executive said. “I always saw it different. Like, it was really a great deal for the Pelicans and the Lakers gave them more than they needed to give.”
That’s because Davis was scheduled to be a free agent in 2020 and could have simply left without any return for the Pelicans. The Lakers had New Orleans over the barrel. Instead, they gave up, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, a pair of recent No. 2 picks, and versatile wing Josh Hart, plus four draft picks.
“I thought that was a bad deal for the Lakers because they did not need to make it,” the exec said. “They could have kept all those kids or traded them for someone else and just signed AD in a year. It was almost generous to give away all those players and picks for a guy you could have waited and gotten a year later. But that is not how it is perceived and perception matters. Plus, it’s LeBron and Klutch so it is going to attract haters.”
Count Barkley among them. He has long held up Davis as a future MVP and one of the best four or five players in the game, which almost seemed to make the drama of the 2019 trade sting him even more. But agents always try to bully the league on their clients’ behalf. Fact is, the deal the Pelicans got for Davis was not a bad one.
But it’s LeBron. It’s Klutch. So there are haters.