Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

It is one thing to observe an athlete’s relationship with his team disintegrate from afar amid a public trade request. The perspective shifts when it happens to the team you’re emotionally invested in or cover professionally. Reports indicate that the origin of Ben Simmons’ desire to depart from Philadelphia is the postgame press conference following the Sixers’ shocking loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Since that night, Rich Paul and Klutch Sports have utilized a number of tactics to pressure Philadelphia into rushing a trade. 

In the first part of this two-part story, three NBA agents offered their perspectives on why Ben Simmons and Rich Paul might be insulted by the comments made after the loss. But, are Paul’s tactics common? Did he overstep by attempting to leverage Tyrese Maxey to build fear within the Sixers?

In the second part of this story, I talked to the three agents about Paul’s tactics and the reported leveraging of Tyrese Maxey to pressure Daryl Morey and the Sixers into consummating a deal.

Rich Paul’s Aggressive Tactics Are Questionable At Times, But Not Uncommon

You might disagree with the reasoning behind Simmons’ and Paul’s public play to move on from Philadelphia. But some agents will tell you that the issue does not lie with him acting on his client’s behalf in a public manner. Rather, the issue lies in his aggressive nature. 

“His intentions are good and he really does look out for the players. I think the application is the issue with Rich Paul because he’s uber aggressive, man,” one agent said of Paul’s aggressive tactics. “Sometimes, when you get so powerful, you lose sight of what your limits are. You lose a little bit of the ability to have more tact in how you do things. Sometimes ego gets in the way, and you really have to step back and say, ‘Hey, this is not exactly the way you should be doing it.’”

Another league personnel man added, “Players and agents indirectly and directly force trades all the time. Nothing new here, especially when you have a young, All-Star caliber player.”

The Maxey Report

There are two factors that make Paul’s charade with Simmons at least somewhat surprising, though. First, the star’s current image around the league has suffered quite a bit in a short period of time. Simmons is not remotely considered a top-10 player in the NBA. Beyond that, the lasting memory of Simmons throughout this ordeal is a career lowlight. 

The other factor is the audacious leverage play involving Tyrese Maxey. According to Jason Dumas, Paul was willing to pull both clients out of Philadelphia. A day later, Dumas retracted his reporting. Regardless of the retraction, the idea was publicized. 

The Inflammatory Nature Of Social Media

When first approached for comment on the Maxey report, one agent quickly replied, “It’s possible that it was actually from the team [to make Rich Paul look bad].”

He also said that such a play, if facilitated by Paul, wouldn’t be uncommon.

“It has happened a lot before. It’s just before, there was no social media and there’s no guy to tweet stuff like that,” the agent opined. “There’s historically been several powerful agents who just did not get along with teams. Historically, CAA, very recently, had not been good with the Lakers. But then CAA is tight with the Clippers and tight with the Knicks. Historically, there’s too many teams and too many people involved. Just too many egos. Too many dynamic personalities to really get along with. And it sucks, but to be able to say something like that, you really have to be powerful.”

He continued, “You also have to have this egotistic awareness that you’re probably going to outlast the coach and the front office. Nobody keeps their job in the front office or coaches forever. But as an agent, you can always be an agent. You just pay your dues and have clients. So I think you have a little bit more clout to say something like that because the owner is not stupid. The owner is a billionaire businessman who knows sometimes you deal with people today and they hate each other. But five years down the road, you might need each other because he has an airplane part that you need eighteen million pieces from. This is how the real world works. But I think Rich Paul is aware of that. He knows how much leverage and clout he has, and it’s happened before. It definitely has happened before.”

“That guy could have retracted it, but it doesn’t change the fact that we saw it.”

When asked to assess the retraction of the report, the same player representative opined, “You have to think about your mitigating circumstances and what can come out of it. Small points. Was it making you look bad to future players? Opening up opportunity for other agents to come and poach a guy because they can use what you said again against you. And just, you know, kind of open up a can of worms with stuff like that.”

The player representative added, “Maybe it’s not true, but it’s already out there. That guy could have retracted it, but it doesn’t change the fact that we saw it. And with the way social media works and the ripples, five years from now, no one’s going to remember the retraction. Did the same people see the retraction that saw the actual post? It’s not likely.”

Assessing The Reality Of Klutch’s Leverage

Even if such a play is not adventuring into unchartered waters or was retracted anyway, it is an indicator of how Klutch Sports views its position in this saga. This writer’s opinion is that an agent would make such a bold push only if he knew his client had no leverage in the situation. It also just so happens that Simmons is under contract for four more years. So, any leverage he has is little more than an illusion. 

Of course, the harder Klutch Sports pushes to create leverage, the longer Simmons could be tied to Philadelphia. They can choose to not show up for training camp. They can threaten to yank both clients from Philadelphia. The bottom line is that Simmons underperformed, and Daryl Morey doesn’t seem to be the type to take pennies on the dollar to relieve discomfort.

He Who Has The Gold Makes The Rules

All three of the agents contacted seemed to opine that Klutch Sports’ leverage, as a brand, could do all the work in this situation.

When posed with my assertion above, one agent responded, “Yeah, I mean, you can look at it that way. But like I said, sometimes you realize how much you can push. I think he realized he could push a lot because he also has another player on that team. And he’s always going to be around, and he’s always gonna have a player they’re gonna want. He has too many players and too many marquee players. He can push that way. I don’t think they can ever push back. No team will ever say, ‘I would never take this agent’s players’. Not when a guy is that powerful.”

The same agent later added, “In the back of your mind, as an agent, you have to think about whenever you try to leverage one of your players to get something from the other. You have to make sure what you’re saying or how you’re doing it is not going to be able to be used against you by another agent. That’s an important thought to have.”

Another agent said, “There’s only a handful of agents with that kind of leverage. Assuming the agent has blessing from player in this case. Big risk otherwise.”

The third agent kept it short — “For better or for worse, the way this whole thing works is akin to the old golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.” 

Risking Future Klutch Clients

One might argue that the primary source of leverage for Klutch Sports would be the threat of deterring future clients from coming to Philadelphia. This writer would agree with that assertion. The problem then becomes that Rich Paul and Klutch Sports won’t have a shortage of clients any time soon, especially not at a time when player empowerment is embedded in the culture of the NBA.

“You have to always think about tomorrow. Another player will come in, another draft class will come in,” an agent told The Painted Lines. “But what if you piss them off to the point where he refuses to have those guys work out for you? He has so much power right now. Again, I think it’s okay because he’s a player advocate. You always want players and agents to have more power than the teams. Teams own the league. If they had all the power and they own the league and they own the money, it’d just be so lopsided. You want this dynamic. Every agent probably feels the way he does. He’s probably just the only one that has enough balls and power to act on it.”

Speaking From Experience

This agent spoke of that reality from first-hand experience. He and Dynasty Sports, his former employer, guided clients away from the Sacramento Kings during George Karl’s tenure as the franchise’s head coach.

They attempted to influence the way the river flowed when DeMarcus Cousins was on the verge of being traded, reaching out to interested teams and informing them that the then-star would not re-sign with them if traded there. But Dynasty Sports, which was led by the late Dan Fegan and Jarinn Akana at the time, didn’t have the power to deliver a convincing message, as the New Orleans Pelicans called their bluff and pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal.

A Fiduciary Duty Exists

Losing future Klutch clients is not an insignificant concern. In fact, such a prospect is a tool possessing terrifying potential. But, one could retort that the Sixers would have to work harder to sell disillusioned Klutch clients on Philadelphia. Perhaps it’s a more aggressive marketing campaign. But, it’s entirely possible that a future target represented by Klutch will be impressed enough to consider Philadelphia even if Paul attempts to dissuade them.    

One agent I spoke with said, “You have a fiduciary duty to your client to put them in the best situation and also consider all alternatives regardless of your personal preference. That’s why it’s tough to recover from [to carry out a spectacle to force the trade]. It’s a tough thing to basically ride with what you say. Once it’s out there it’s just..[Pause]..We don’t see that happening too often, the way he did it, especially in public. It looked bad. What if a player really wants to go there and they have interest? You can also see a situation where another agent comes in and says, ‘I know this team wants you, your agent is not going to let you go there. Hire me, I’ll make it happen,’. If you put too much out there that can be used against you, that’s not really smart.”

Past The Point Of No Return

Ultimately, everything is in limbo in Philadelphia. Paul’s first bicep flex was threatening that Simmons would abstain from attending training camp if a trade was not consummated by then. We sit about two weeks away from the first day of camp, and there doesn’t appear to be a deal on the horizon. Klutch knows the asking price has not been met. So, they’re left with their original play. 

“At this point you have to [hold out],” an agent opined. “Too much stuff. You can never say ‘water under the bridge’ at this point. I think Rich Paul is super smart, very aware of everything. But I think with this, kind of overplayed it or played his hand a little bit too much [with the inclusion of Maxey in this situation]. Too aggressive. I don’t think you have to do that. I don’t think that’s a big-enough player to where you can do that. Tyrese Maxey still was a rookie last year that was okay.”

Those Who Don’t Know History Are Doomed To Repeat It

Assuming Klutch Sports won’t back-track on their own threat, the Sixers are best off allowing Simmons and Paul to throw their tantrum from a distance. Philadelphia has a President of Basketball Operations who is certainly willing to tolerate the pain that ensues should the situation worsen. “It’s a tough situation. It’s a tough league. Organizations change. Players develop. Players regress,” one agent commented. “And when you have a max guy with years left & both sides want out, it can be tricky. But not all that unique.”

The historical precedence suggests that the outcome is almost certain to be unfavorable for the Sixers. The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Daryl Morey has been around long enough to see how these situations play out, and his reputation suggests he’s smart enough to avoid making the same mistakes.