​​How Nerlens Noel-Rich Paul Lawsuit Could Change NBA Agent Landscape

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IAugust 27, 2021

New York Knicks' Nerlens Noel reacts after he was called for a technical foul after an altercation with Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller during an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in New York. (Elsa/Pool Photo via AP)
Elsa/Associated Press

NBA agents across the league cheered Nerlens Noel's lawsuit this week against powerbroker Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.

Paul, a noted player representative and close friend of LeBron James, has reached the upper echelon of the NBA's player representation economy, wielding an unpopular influence that many figures around the league believe comes from working alongside the greatest player of his generation. That naturally creates a few adversaries in the process.

The latest now appears to be Noel, who says Paul cost him $58 million in forfeited salary after Noel declined a four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavericks in 2017. Noel fired his then-agent Happy Walters, who had negotiated the $70 million deal, under Paul's direction. And Noel then took Paul's advice to decline the deal in search of a richer payday the following summer.

He accepted the one-year qualifying offer of $4.1 million. That following season, he tore a ligament in his left thumb, played only 30 games and was suddenly rendered a minimum-salary player.

Noel, a 27-year-old center, alleges Paul then proceeded to provide little assistance in securing contracts and roster spots the following three seasons.

"The minute you hit a minimum, it's very hard to go back," one veteran player representative said.

That accept-the-qualifying-offer, bet-on-yourself tactic—in addition to client-poaching from other agents—has drawn ire from Paul's rivals in the agency world. To be fair, they are often guilty of the same activities; a significant portion of income for larger agencies is generated by poaching clients before a player's next lucrative deal.

The National Basketball Players Association does not prohibit certified agents from contacting other certified agents' clients, a noted contrast to the NBA's tampering rules, prohibiting team executives from contacting rival teams' talent. That stance has frustrated many agents for years.

And it's not just Paul.

Sources told Bleacher Report that Victor Oladipo was influenced to leave longtime representative Aaron Turner of Verus Management for Excel Sports just before free agency this summer. Excel gave Oladipo the same sales pitch: a new agent can deliver more money than the previous one. In this case, like Noel's, they didn't deliver.

Back in 2017, Robert Covington left his agent Chris Patrick (who helped land the two-way forward his first legitimate NBA stop in Philadelphia) for behemoth CAA Sports ahead of signing a four-year, $62 million deal.

Oladipo and Covington are merely two of a long list of examples.

The union has never shown much interest in policing such backchanneling. But a popular solution often mentioned by agents is saving 1 percent of the commission on a player's next contract for the previous representative, which would likely require some form of arbitration.

However, there are plenty of instances when players seek new representation because of their previous agent's objective shortcomings.

Rich Paul (left)
Rich Paul (left)Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"I think it's important that you get both sides," Blazers guard and NBPA president CJ McCollum said. "A lot of times players aren't firing their agent for no reason. A lot of times they fire them with cause—there's something that's happening where a player needs a change of scenery. I believe in pro-choice. I believe agents have a right to get rid of players, and I believe players have the right to get rid of agents."

So does this incident force the union's hand to address the underbelly of the agent game?

Noel's lawsuit is the first unveiling of a high-profile agent's clandestine strategies. Here, Paul wooed Noel while they both attended the birthday party of another Klutch client, and Noel's former teammate, Ben Simmons.

It is not common practice for a player to drop a bombshell lawsuit against his former representative, which came after Paul's Klutch Sports filed a grievance with the union, claiming Noel did not pay his $200,000 commission on last season's one-year, $5 million deal with the Knicks.

"It is wild to see all of it aired out like this," another veteran agent said. "It happens all the time, but it never becomes public. It happens around the draft even. Guys will say anything to convince these players to come."

Maybe these headlines do go away and Noel's filing was simply a public gesture against the agent he feels wronged him. "I'll pay you this 200 grand, but I'm gonna s--t in your cornflakes before I do," one representative who previously worked with Noel said.

The majority of league sources contacted by B/R do expect the union to settle some type of agreement between these two parties, being that a legitimate legal battle benefits neither Klutch nor Noel. For Noel to win $58 million in alleged lost salary, he would seemingly face a daunting uphill battle in a court of law.

"The truth is Nerlens is not innocent in this," another agent said. "If you're silly enough to turn down that kind of money, that's not on Rich."

Paul's defense would be simple: An agent can never be held accountable for accurately predicting the future. He was providing a client with counsel, counsel that Noel did not have to accept, and if Noel did not suffer an injury, he very well could have garnered a richer deal.

That following summer, in 2018, Clint Capela scored a five-year, $90 million contract from the Rockets, a solid payday for a bouncy pick-and-roll threat and rim-protector of similar ilk.

Noel's case relies on the argument that Paul did not act in Noel's best interest, that Paul had no part in pitching the center to the Thunder in 2018 or sufficiently marketing him to other teams the following seasons.

Nerlens Noel
Nerlens NoelEric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

The lawsuit claims Paul never informed Noel of Philadelphia's interest in bringing him back—that he later only heard the intel from coach Brett Brown, who said Philly's front office was unable to reach Paul. The 76ers, and the team's coaching staff in particular, were indeed interested in Noel before Philadelphia ultimately shifted its pricier sights onto Al Horford, sources confirmed to B/R.

Noel goes on to allege that the Clippers and Rockets also attempted to contact Paul that same offseason, also to no avail. League sources confirmed this detail to Bleacher Report as well. "Nerlens was always somebody we really liked in Houston and definitely tried to get in touch with," one former Rockets official said. "But my understanding is it never got very far."

It likely would be very challenging, however, for Noel's defense to find a team figure willing to come forward and confirm that series of events as a witness at trial. It's a sensitive topic that multiple league personnel declined to comment on for this article.

Maybe the only impact here is a little dent in Paul's armor. Noel was neither the first nor last client Klutch advised to turn down a richer offer than one that would later come. Not all press is good press when it comes to securing future players.

Paul's then-client, Shabazz Muhammad, declined a four-year, $40 million offer from the Wolves, which never materialized again. He urged Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to turn down Detroit's five-year, $80 million extension. But Eric Bledsoe and Tristan Thompson each secured massive contracts after their loud holdouts.

You can bet on yourself with either outcome. We'll see if the union ends up adding more rules to the game before a player decides whether to make that gamble.


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.