Winning their 17th championship on Sunday, everyone in the Los Angeles Lakers organization—from players to coaches to front-office personnel—deserve their respect for pushing through a long, challenging season.
But let's peel back the curtain.
The franchise wouldn't be raising another banner without the behind-the-scenes machinations of LeBron James and agent Rich Paul, aka Klutch Sports Group.
It's one of the worst-kept secrets in the league that LeBron is heavily involved in his agency's maneuverings, and why NBA execs can easily see LeBron pushing the Lakers to trade for an old friend this offseason.
What's good for LeBron is good for business. And what's good for business is good for LeBron.
"LeBron runs [Klutch]," one former Western Conference executive tells Bleacher Report.
The most prominent example of Klutch's power is the Lakers' 2019 acquisition of Anthony Davis—arguably the best teammate James has ever had. The seeds were sown when Davis signed with Paul in September of 2018.
After his team had clinched the Western Conference Finals over the Denver Nuggets, James shared his take on Davis coming to Los Angeles:
"This is the reason why I wanted to be a teammate of his and why I brought him here," he reflected.
That's why I brought him here.
With Davis now planning to opt out and re-sign with L.A. this summer, as first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, it begs the question, whom will LeBron bring to the Lakers next? Some league execs point to one of his old Banana Boat buddies as the final piece to LeBron's Laker dynasty puzzle.
It was just over three years ago when Pelinka compared the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signing to manna from heaven (although he didn't use the biblical term):
Caldwell-Pope reached a deal with Johnson (former president of basketball operations) and Pelinka to join the Lakers for $17.7 million over one year. Perhaps Pelinka understood that KCP was the first step toward building a relationship with Klutch, Paul and ultimately James (who was still under contract with the Cavaliers).
Paul could often be seen sitting next to Lakers governor Jeanie Buss at Staples Center, watching the team win 35 games in the competitive Western Conference. That feeling-out process was an instrumental step in forging a comfortable partnership.
James signed the next offseason. Caldwell-Pope was brought back for another year at $12 million and yet again last summer on a two-year deal that could earn him as much as $19 million (he has a player option this offseason). According to Charania, however, the guard plans to decline the option. The Lakers will have his full rights and the ability to compensate Caldwell-Pope handsomely, regardless of the impact the COVID-19 shutdown might have on the salary cap.
Both the Lakers and Paul were making a long-term play, but it was nearly short-circuited when Davis told the Pelicans he desired a trade ahead of the 2019 February deadline.
"That was Paul being impatient, trying to strong-arm the Pelicans," the former executive said.
A deal didn't materialize by the deadline. On the final day of the season, Johnson resigned. Months later, Pelinka and the Lakers executed the deal for Davis.
Mistakes were made along the way, but the ends justify the means. The Lakers may not have future draft picks of note to use in a trade to add veteran talent, but James has proved to be a capable recruiter.
The Lakers now have six on the Klutch roster, including Caldwell-Pope, Dion Waiters, JR Smith, Horton-Tucker, Davis and James. Few agencies have even five clients on the same team; six is rare.
So Who Will LeBron Lure Next?
"Chris Paul would love to come back to L.A. I know it would be a dream come true for Chris," an Eastern Conference executive said. "I know LeBron loves and trusts him and he would be a good fit."
Paul would give the Lakers a third scorer and playmaking depth, especially if they retain Rajon Rondo, who also plans to opt out, per Charania. The challenge would be the two years, $85.6 million left on Paul's contract (he can opt out of the final season but isn't likely to, given the $44.2 million payday).
If James set his sights on Paul, the Lakers would have to send out five players: Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green and Quinn Cook, along with Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee, who need to opt into their contracts to be dealt. L.A. would also need to send its No. 28 pick in November's draft, signing that player before waiting 30 days to execute a deal in which the Lakers would offload almost $33 million in players salaries.
Isn't that too much of an upheaval for a team that just won a title?
"It seems like a risk, but sometimes you need to [execute big moves] to make yourself even better," the executive continued. "The [Golden State] Warriors will be better. The [Los Angeles] Clippers may be better. The [Denver] Nuggets aren't going to get worse. Your competition is getting better. It worked [in Orlando] for the Lakers, but I don't know if you have a normal regular season without the bubble if it does."
Bradley sat out the NBA restart because of family concerns. McGee and Cook were not regular contributors. A late first-round pick may not get much court time to develop on a team aspiring to repeat as champions. The Lakers would lose significant depth, one starter (Green) and a key reserve (Kuzma).
"It's a no-brainer to get a third scorer [and playmaker] like Chris. It's a really valid and viable scenario," he said. "Will it happen? I don't know, but if I'm the Lakers [or] if I'm LeBron, that's what I go for. They might be able to get a pick back from the Thunder, like [the Miami Heat's 2021 previously acquired by Oklahoma City]."
There's no guarantee the Thunder will trade Paul after the team's 44-28 season, but the buzz around the league is they'll talk to teams like the Milwaukee Bucks or New York Knicks to test the waters. It's unclear if James will push the Lakers to enter that conversation, but it may be worth noting that Paul is coming off a tremendous season and is the godfather to LeBron James Jr.
As far as replenishing the lost depth, James is a powerful recruiter. The Lakers could revisit DeMarcus Cousins, former James teammates like Tristan Thompson (also a Klutch client) and Kyle Korver and/or a versatile defender like Maurice Harkless.
Beyond a major move like Paul, if the Lakers want a player in the draft, they can always look to acquire a pick, as they did last year, sending $2.2 million to the Orlando Magic to acquire the 46th selection to take Talen Horton-Tucker, another Klutch client.
Sense a trend?
Kawhi Leonard may have rejected James and the Lakers for the Clippers, but the Lakers quickly pivoted to add veterans like Green, Bradley, Cousins (lost to injury before the season), Dwight Howard and, after the trade deadline, Markieff Morris on a buyout from the Detroit Pistons.
No, they're not all with Klutch Sports, but if the Lakers need a big man to replace McGee or free agents Howard and Morris, look for the Cavaliers' Thompson to reunite with James.
James' gravity goes beyond the court, which is why this moment with Jerami Grant stood out as the confetti fell at the end of the Denver series:
Grant can opt out of his final year at $9.3 million. The Lakers could have the means to pay him roughly $40 million over four years. That isn't close to what the Nuggets can pay to retain him, but James always seems to be recruiting.
James may be the mentor, but Davis as the protege has shown he's learning to use his power, making sure that Rondo re-signed with the team and luring Cousins in free agency.
Of course, the team's future is tethered to Davis' decision to opt out of his $28.8 million and re-sign in L.A. Not many teams project to have cap room, but the Lakers, with Davis and James on board, look like a team with options.