Opinions are divided when you bring up Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group. For every detractor keen to tell you he is nothing but a coat-tailer, there is a supporter who marvels at his rise from pawn to king. Whilst there is little doubt the on-court King has played a role in his agent’s career to date (LeBron James hired Rich Paul shortly after being drafted), Paul has left even less doubt in his ability as an NBA Agent since.
With a net worth of over $20 million, Mr Klutch represents some of the biggest names in the game, but just how deep his current player list sits is somewhat up in the air. Paul entered the 2017 Free Agency period with just three of his sixteen client seeking contracts. Paul dealt with the Grizzlies to find Ben McLemore a new home, and then chased the Lakers for a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Contract.
That leaves Shabazz Muhammad.
The sole Klutch Sports client without a new NBA deal is rumoured to be leaving Rich Paul’s agency in search of a better offer. It hasn’t taken long for Paul to find a new sixteenth man, another unhappy Free Agent, Nerlens Noel.
That move led to many marking the union with references to Paul as the ‘RFA Whisperer’ and a man in need of his own catch-cry; “Better Call Paul”. Joking aside, there is method to the madness of Noel switching late in the piece to join Paul.
The current client list includes some deals with little fanfare. Terrance Ferguson, Dejounte Murray, Trey Lyles and Ben Simmons are all on their rookie scale contracts. While the negotiations for multi-year deals for Kosta Koufos and Cory Joseph were standard, albeit with good value.
Beyond that, the remainder of the Klutch Sports player list is littered with deals Rich Paul negotiated to the death. Often using any leverage he could find in order to get the best contract for his client. It’s encouraging reading for his newest client.
THE EASY ONES
LeBron James – 3 Years / $100 Million (Player Option)
Insight: Negotiating the contracts of the best player in the game, who also happens to be the NBPA Vice President, gives you all the leverage you need. However, Paul and his superstar client continue to stay ahead of the game. While the new deal signed in ’16 looked like LeBron making a bigger committment to the Cavs than recent years, it also had ulterior motives. The two plus one structure maximised the total earning power of the deal, whilst allowing him to potentially re-sign a new long term maximum deal under the new CBA with a change from the Over 36 rule to Over 38.
Hindsight: The perfect move. LeBron’s current deal made him the highest paid player in the NBA for the first time ever in year one and the highest paid NBA player in a single season ever in year two.
Foresight: Where LBJ lands next only he knows but you can guarantee the contract will be on his terms, whether that be in California, Ohio or another shock option.
John Wall – 4 Years / $170 Million (Extension w/ Player Option)
Insight: After making the All-NBA third team last season, John Wall gave his agent the ultimate leverage needed to secure a big money deal. While Utah and Indiana watched their franchise leaders in Gordon Hayward and Paul George go, partly due to not qualifying for the Super-Max Extension, Rich Paul was able to start talks with Washington for Wall. The extension kicks in after the 18/19 NBA season and sees Wall earn up to $207 million between now and 2023 with the Wizards.
Hindsight: Wall can no longer complain about being underpaid compared to his peers. The 50th highest paid player for season 17/18, Wall is currently in the top five earners for 19/20 with $37.8 million owed.
Foresight: Rich Paul negotiated a Player Option for 2022 and 15% trade kicker for Wall, meaning he will earn maximum money with a little future flexibility.
THE HARD ONESEric Bledsoe – 5 Years / $70 Million
Insight: In 2014, the Suns and Eric Bledsoe entered Restricted Free Agency together. Negotiations dragged on after the Suns offered a deal worth roughly $12 million per year, which Paul and his client rejected. Despite failing to receive an offer sheet elsewhere, Paul didn’t panic and let negotiations drag on into September. Paul then found the one offer he needed. The Wolves didn’t have Bledsoe sign an offer sheet but they did engage the Suns on a trade and were prepared to offer $15mil+ per year, which eventually resulted in the Suns upping their initial offer.
Hindsight: The stalemate in many ways resulted in the Suns signing Isaiah Thomas, which Phoenix still feel the effects of today. As for Bledsoe, Paul used the lack of Free Agent Point Guard’s in ’14 to his advantage and five years has certainly been good for his injury plagued client.
Foresight: Bledsoe hits the open market again in 19/20 at age 29 and among a strong Point Guard class. While Teague, Hill and Dragic will all be significantly older, Bledsoe will be up against Irving, Rubio and Walker for a new job.
Montrezl Harrell – 3 Years / $3.14 Million
Insight: After drafting Harrell with Pick 32 in ’15, the Rockets could negotiate a deal without the restrictions of the rookie scale. Houston were in a unique position where anything more than a one year would hard cap them according to salary rules and severely restrict their flexibility to improve the roster. Rich Paul didn’t care. He knew his player was a talent and would have interest elsewhere. He also knew the Rockets wouldn’t have drafted him if they didn’t agree. That leverage was enough and Paul eventually locked his client into a fully guaranteed three year deal, after dragging talks out into September.
Hindsight: Harrell remains one of ten second round picks from the ’15 Draft with a guaranteed deal for next season. With his share of behavioural issues and the Rockets constant roster shuffling, getting three years locked in was a great deal.
Foresight: Restricted Free Agency is on the horizon for Harrell, which has been brutal on players so far this summer. However, Montrezl should at least get regular minutes with the Clippers to prove his worth to a future employer.
Tristan Thompson – 5 Years / $82 Million
Insight: In 2015, Tristan Thompson hit Restricted Free Agency after the Cavaliers lost in the Finals to Golden State. Conventional thinking meant Paul had to find an offer sheet for his client. Yet despite the lack of an offer sheet existing, Paul had all the leverage he needed. Thompson was key to the team’s success, they had no options to replace him and there was of course the looming existence of his Klutch buddy LeBron James. It dragged out post training camp, whilst being reported that TT could eventually play elsewhere, possibly his native Canada. The result was another Klutch win in Cleveland.
Hindsight: Had Thompson been the first of Paul’s clients to actually take the Qualifying Offer, he may have lucked into the cash bonanza that was the ’16 Free Agent Frenzy. Five guaranteed years at a slight discount though, was enough to get it done.
Foresight: Thompson’s contract will be up at age 29 and Paul will possibly be able to find him one last big pay day. Before then, a LeBron-less Cavs could also look to trade his valuable contract away for assets.
JR Smith – 4 Years / $57 Million (Partial Guaranteed 4th)
Insight: Rich Paul read from the same playbook again in 2016 with JR Smith. This time the Cavs were returning as the Champions but everything remained the same. Smith was needed, Cleveland was very inflexible when it came to other options and the LeBron/Paul combination was looming again. Proving to be all the leverage needed 12 months earlier, Paul wrapped this deal up a week earlier than that of Thompson. It was still October and deep into training camp, when Cleveland eventually caved and gave Smith the long term deal he wanted.
Hindsight: Options elsewhere for Smith were limited but they were even more so for the Cavs and Paul was able to once again avoid being the first to blink. Three guaranteed years for a 31 year old was a great result, particularly factoring in signs of decline since.
Foresight: Smith likely won’t see the fourth year of his deal, particularly if LeBron is long gone. Cleveland will give him a $3.8 million handshake and Smith will be a 33 year old likely looking for an exception.
Ben McLemore – 2 Years / $10.7 Million
Insight: After cutting ties with the Kings in 2017, the market wasn’t all that healthy for Ben McLemore and Rich Paul had zero leverage. McLemore went on to sign a fully guaranteed $10.7 million for two years and shocked those following Free Agency. How did Paul do it? He found leverage where there was none: Targeting a team in desperate need of shooting and with limited resources available to add talent. The Grizzlies only had exceptions at their disposal and as long as Paul declined the smaller BAE ($3.3Mil), then they had to use a portion of the more lucrative non-taxpayer MLE ($8.4Mil).
Hindsight: By going early, Rich Paul got his client more guaranteed money than Justin Holiday (2 Years/$9mil), Reggie Bullock (2/$5), Jamal Crawford (2/$8.9) and Nick Young (1/$5.2).
Foresight: Hitting the open market again in two years, McLemore will be among a pretty weak crop of SG’s. Passed the elite tier of Butler and Thompson, there won’t be much for him to compete against if he can prove he’s an NBA player in the next two seasons.
THE TEST Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – 1 Year / $18 Million
Insight: After reportedly knocking back a five year-$80 million extension with the Pistons, KCP still had cause for optimism going into the offseason. However, ’17 Free Agency panned out a little differently to the previous year and Paul struggled to find the max offer sheet they expected when rejecting the Pistons extension. Paul didn’t panic though and contacted the Lakers, who had plenty of salary to burn on short term deals. The saving grace of $18 million in one year, might just help Rich Paul save face on this one. It also doesn’t hurt that GM Pelinka and President Magic have done Paul a solid here, given the impending Free Agency of Lebron in 2018.
Eyesight: KCP will thrive in Los Angeles next year, with plenty of minutes available and a spotlight role guarding the opposition’s best guards. There will be no shortage of teams with the space and need for a two-guard, including ATL, CHI, DAL, PHI and BKN all watching with interest.
Foresight: KCP will only have to play well enough to land a 4 Year/$62 million deal, to essentially break even. Yes there is the risk of injury, but if he can hold up his end, expect Rich Paul to find a deal starting even higher than the $14.4 million salary he needs and come up Klutch again.
Nerlens Noel – QO / $4.1 Million
Insight: Noel enlisted the help of Klutch after deciding to knock back a 4 Year/$70 million offer from the Mavericks. This one is going to be Paul’s toughest test yet. Paul looks to have advised Noel to take the QO, given Mark Cuban says talks were never revisited. The hope here is landing a larger long term deal next offseason with greater leverage by opening Noel up to all 30 teams. The risk is injury and/or poor play that sees Noel receive offers on the open market that still don’t come close to the Mavs contract he rejected.
Eyesight: Just like KCP, there will be no shortage of teams with space next season but fewer with a need at Center than Shooting Guard. If Noel can show further improvement, teams such as ATL, BKN, CHI, LAL, PHX and of course DAL would all have the space and need for his services.
Foresight: Noel needs to recoup $66 million over the next three years to get back on track. While it’s doubtful Paul can land him that deal, there is a chance they can find an improved 4 Year deal for $70 million plus. At just 23 years old, player and client might be playing the long game on this one.
Shabazz Muhammad – Unsigned / UFA
Insight: After having his Qualifying Offer rescinded by the Wolves, Muhammad was free to sign anywhere he liked. However after just hiring Rich Paul (replacing Rob Pelinka) four months ago, he reportedly wants to leave already with no current deal on the table. Whilst there is cause for concern if Muhammad eventually signs for less than his QO ($4.2Mil), it’s uncertain how much blame can be placed on Paul. The Wolves had to pull the offer to create room for Taj Gibson and Shabazz’s market was not healthy to begin with.
Eyesight: Just about any team would take ‘Bazz for his Veteran Minimum for the upcoming season. Hopefully he finds somewhere that is a good fit for him and maximises his market for season 18/19.
Foresight: All signs point to Muhammad leaving Klutch Sports at this stage. Only if Shabazz lands an unlikely multi year deal this season or next without Paul, will this situation reflect badly on the Klutch Meter.
When Free Agency opens on July 1st, 2018, Rich Paul looks to have a much busier schedule than he may have first planned. His star client, LeBron James, is expected to opt out of the final year on his current deal and the circus surrounding his next decision will be wild. Rich Paul may have forecast that deal being his big priority come the summer of ’18, with some small fry deals in the form of Harrell’s Restricted Free Agency and possible opt outs from Joseph and Koufos to contend with in the background.
All of a sudden Paul is going to have a huge test in also negotiating new deals for Caldwell-Pope and Noel (and possibly Muhammad?) too, ideally off the back of strong performances next season by the pair.
Come the end of the first week in July next year, the legend of Rich Paul could prove either man or myth. He will always have LeBron James and his max deals to hang his hat on but if he can come through in the Klutch for his other players, the naysayers won’t be able to pick any holes in a near flawless track record.