2024 trade deadline: 4 blockbuster LeBron James trades, Klutch-Knicks and Rich Paul's power play
LeBron trade proposals with the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers. And my thoughts on Rich Paul's bold statement on Friday.
Less than a week before the 2024 trade deadline, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul made big-time news by telling ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on Friday that LeBron James is staying put in LakerLand.
“LeBron won’t be traded, and we aren’t asking to be,” Paul told Windhorst.
It’s a rare on-the-record statement from Paul, who has solely represented LeBron James since breaking off from CAA and launching Klutch Sports Group in 2012. Paul has largely operated behind the scenes rather than on a recorded line. But on this one? He needed to get the word out.
The statement is interesting to me for several reasons. One, it didn’t come from LeBron. The four-time MVP could have just as easily said the same thing. So why was it Paul who stuck out his neck and said it publicly? I’ve got some thoughts on that.
The Klutch-CAA angle
The calendar reveals a clue. Paul called Windhorst on Friday morning. What happened later that day? A meeting with the Leon Rose and the CAA-aligned New York Knicks ahead of their Saturday matchup on ABC.
With LeBron igniting an entire day’s news cycle with a cryptic ⌛️ late-night tweet earlier in the week, Paul would be fully aware of the optics of Friday’s breaking of bread. The hour-glass tweet combined with a kumbaya meeting with Rose and Knicks’ brass during trade-deadline week? Paul may have been simply trying to get out ahead of it and squashing any speculation that might piss off the Lakers.
Make no mistake, the Klutch-Knicks meeting was a significant development in NBA circles. If you doubt its import, go readon the years-long cold war between Rose and Paul.
On Monday, Windhorst asserted that the Knicks-Klutch meeting was the single-most important thing that happened in LeBron’s world over the past week, noting that, due to their “icy” relationship, Paul and Knicks boss (and Paul’s former mentor) Rose hadn’t sat at the same table in the past decade. What was that meeting about? Was it about a LeBron trade? This summer? Other Klutch clients? Only Paul and Rose know.
But we know that Paul made sure to get it on the record that he didn’t think LeBron was going anywhere.
The primary reason I found Paul’s declaration to be fascinating is this: Rich Paul doesn’t have a say in whether LeBron James gets traded.
Rich Paul is not Rob Pelinka
Paul said what he said, but he can’t know for sure that James won’t be moved at the deadline. That’s because:
LeBron does not have a no-trade clause.
Rob Pelinka, not Paul, runs basketball decisions for the Lakers.
On the first thing, the de facto no-trade clause like Paul is describing? Only Bradley Beal has a no-trade clause written into his contract like other greats like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan had. By virtue of re-signing with a team for one year, players like Miles Bridges, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, by rule in the CBA, have to give their blessing before their teams can trade them. Paul Reed and Matisse Thybulle also have veto power for a calendar year because they signed an RFA offer sheet that was matched by their previous team.
But LeBron? He can be traded.
And Pelinka can trade him to the Detroit Pistons tomorrow if he wanted to.
This is not to say that Pelinka would. He’d know that such a move would severely damage his relationship with Paul and his vast Klutch client list.
Pelinka knows that few, if any, can shift the chess pieces around the NBA chessboard like Paul can. After all, Paul was the one who took over as Anthony Davis’ agent and helped force his way to LakerLand in the first place. Pelinka isn’t dumb. No one understands more deeply that Paul is the CEO of a top agency that represents some of the biggest names in the NBA, including the following current or former All-Stars:
And that’s not the half of it. You have those kind of names on your client list, you’re going to be able to throw your weight around. Pelinka feels that influence every time LeBron and Davis walk in the locker room, or when Draymond daps up Paul courtside. After trading LeBron to Detroit, you want a meeting with Tyrese Maxey when he’s a free agent this summer? Hah, good luck with that.
With that said, I received Paul’s statement as a challenge to Pelinka, a power play to test the blurry boundaries of their roles. Declaratively telling the world that the Lakers won’t trade his client?
That sounds like something only Pelinka or Lakers owner Jeanie Buss could say. During their entire careers, Paul and James have fought tooth-and-nail against the perception that they run the front offices of James’ teams. Sure, it sounds good in theory to be so powerful that you control a team’s personnel — when you’re winning. (Months after the Lakers’ championship, Paul let it slip in a New Yorker interview referring to the Lakers as “us.”)
But when things aren’t so good? It’s nice to just be LeBron the player, or Paul the agent.
And yet, here’s Paul doing the very thing that fans have long accused of James and Klutch, playing the role of the team’s top decision-maker, announcing that James isn’t going to be traded.
I wonder how that news story landed amongst the Lakers brass. On one hand, it’s a comforting to know that the face of the franchise — through his representation — has indicated that he wants to play out the season. Maybe they all collectively breathed a sigh of relief — LeBron is still one of the top dozen or so players in the NBA. I’m sure some of execs of LeBron’s teams over the years have lost sleep over the possibility of a “BREAKING: LeBron James makes trade demand” notification lighting up their phone.
On the other hand, I could see how Paul’s statement might be interpreted another way. Like: Who are *you* to decide whether we trade LeBron or not?
It’s worth pointing out that the Lakers — through Darvin Ham or a rare quote from Pelinka — have not come out and confirmed that James is staying put — at least not to my knowledge.
And why would they rule it out? Doing so would disarm what little leverage they have in the LeBron power dynamic. If the Lakers are convinced that LeBron is going to walk this summer as a free agent and leave them out in the cold, it would behoove the Lakers to trade him now and recoup valuable assets for the future. The Lakers are basically a .500 team with LeBron and carrying little in the way of tradable assets. It’s not like they’d be breaking up the 1996 Bulls here.
And don’t think for a second that the Lakers can’t trade LeBron. We’ve seen organizations trade the face of their franchise in ways that, at one time or another, would have been unfathomable.
The Thunder would never trade Russell Westbrook in his prime — until they did.
The Pelicans would never trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers — until they did.
Hell, the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to Pat Riley’s Heat two years after the 3-peat. (For those keeping track at home, it’s been three years since LeBron won the Lakers championship.)
This is the NBA — rule out trades at your own peril.
And LeBron knows it. He was there when the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving to Boston. James hasn’t demanded a trade, but a day after Paul said LeBron wouldn’t be traded, James wore a Knicks towel over his shoulders as he did his walkoff TV interview. A trade in the works? Windhorst, who got the Friday scoop from Paul himself, viewed it a little differently, on his pod the Hoop Collective:
“Obviously LeBron often wears towels. And this is why it’s so brilliant. He has perfect deniability. He can just be like, ‘I just put a towel around my shoulders, what are you talking about? You guys are out of your mind!’ But, LeBron — this is what LeBron excels at. He computes all this stuff. Of course, he was cognizant and aware that he was putting on a towel that said New York Knicks. Why would he mess with the New York Knicks? Because he was using the Knicks as a tool to pressure the Lakers.”
Windhorst knows the LeBron power plays as well as anybody. It was also noted on the pod, via LA Times reporter Dan Woike, that LeBron’s playlist last week conspicuously consisted of New York-themed songs. Windhorst put a bow on it by saying: “I don’t think he has any intention of leaving the Lakers. But I don’t think he does not suffer by leaving his future up in the air.”
Let’s talk about his future.
A pet theory about the Knicks meeting
I’ll posit another (unsourced) theory about the purpose behind the Knicks-Klutch meeting. What if Rich Paul told the Knicks to free up cap space at the deadline so LeBron could sign there this summer?
Worth noting: LeBron was non-committal when asked about his player option for next season.
The Knicks would have to move some mountains cap-wise to sign James as a free agent. But it sure is advantageous to have that intel before the trade deadline. The Knicks would need to clear Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson’s contracts off the books to get there, just for starters.
Two months ago, imagining a world in which the 12-7 Knicks trade Randle and Robinson would be preposterous. But now? Both are hurt and they Knicks are doing just fine. Knicks center Isiaah Hartenstein has been a revelation and they don’t seem to miss Randle much. (Lest you think teams can’t trade injured players, Steven Adams, out for the season, just got traded to the Houston Rockets.)
If you’re Pelinka and you see the Knicks moving off big 2024-25 money? Then it gets real. And real fast. Not saying this is what happened in the Knicks-Klutch meeting, but just throwing it out there.
It’s The Finder’s position is that the only way that the Lakers trade LeBron is if they’re convinced he’s leaving this summer anyway. On that, there’s too much Knicks-LeBron courtship for me to ignore. The Knicks towel, the hour-glass emoji, the I’ve-thought-about-the-Knicks LeBron line, the Paul-as-Lakers-GM ESPN report, the Klutch-Knicks meeting. Man, it’s a lot.
If the Lakers push that button (and I think it’s less than a 10 percent chance they do), I see four destinations that would give up valuable assets to make it happen: Cleveland, Miami, New York and Golden State.
What would those trades look like?
Let’s lay it out.