How Rich Paul played a role in Cavaliers’ title run
Standing at the back of a packed interview room, donning a championship cap and working a cigar between his index and middle fingers, the 5-foot-5-inch man gleamed with pride as his client addressed the media.
The Cavaliers had just won Game 7, stealing the NBA Finals from the Warriors with a dramatic comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, and LeBron James, flanked by his three children, was reflecting on his journey back to Cleveland and bringing the city its first major sports championship in 52 years.
So excited about the accomplishment and willing to share the details of his client’s amazing accomplishment, Rich Paul spoke quietly while James reflected to the rest of the world.
Paul’s journey is nearly as improbable as James’s. Selling throwback jerseys out of his car, Paul struck a friendship with James 14 years ago while the latter was an NBA prospect at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and became part of his inner circle.
Instead of just being one of James’s boys, Paul became a business associate and eventually his agent. This was no fluke. Paul has established Klutch Sports and represents not only James but also Tristan Thompson, Eric Bledsoe, Norris Cole, John Wall, and Trey Lyles, among others.
But that ascension would not have occurred had he not taken becoming an agent seriously and convinced James to return to Cleveland while in a Las Vegas hotel room two summers ago. After four years and two titles with the Heat, James was a free agent and pondered staying in Miami for another run or returning to Cleveland, which he had left so abruptly after failing to win a ring.
“We were in Vegas and it was just [his] decision to make, ‘Am I staying somewhere to win a championship or am I going somewhere to win a championship or am I going home to not only try to win one championship but to uplift the city of Cleveland,’ ” Paul said. “That’s what means the most to me. Those people raised him. They supported him. The decision for him was bigger than basketball.”
James returned to Cleveland, where it seems his legacy rides on every one of his games. The Cavaliers fell to the Warriors in the Finals in six games last season and then were behind in this just-concluded series. James was being bashed for failing to lead his team to prosperity — and then he turned into SuperCav in the final three games.
“Being a superstar in this time frame, [criticism] is what comes with it,” Paul said. “It is fair? Is it unfair? Life ain’t fair. I lost my dad at 19, is that fair? But you’ve got to continue to persevere and that’s always been my message to him. You’ve come so far, you’ve done so much, even if you lose a game in basketball, you’re going to forever win in the game of life and that’s been my message to him. That was my message to them when they were down, 3-1.”
While many NBA players are dogged by their posses or friends who are simply there for the lifestyle and exposure, James, Paul, and Maverick Carter have formed a strong business relationship.
“We wanted to learn the business; I never wanted to be just known as ‘LeBron’s guy,’ ” Paul said. “I wanted to educate myself on the business. I love the game [of basketball] and I was able to do that over a number of years. People look at it like I just got in this business. I’ve been in this for 15 years now. A lot of people have watched me grow and I’m appreciative of it, but I had to earn my stripes just like everybody else and I respect all the other guys in the field. Everybody gets their time.
“For LeBron, the best thing he could have done for me is give me an opportunity. Everybody can’t do it. I’ve always only known to work and there was never no handouts for me. To see LeBron win a championship for the city of Cleveland, I’m from Cleveland. It’s a big thing.”
Paul could not overstate the importance of what a title means to Cleveland. The fans there have been long-suffering and James’s presence, beginning from his rookie season, has resurrected the city, and his return — after four losing seasons for the Cavaliers — reinvigorated the area.
“It’s not about basketball, it’s bigger,” Paul said of James’s return. “He’s given a positive mind-set to Northeast Ohio. People don’t understand. It’s so big because people from Northeast Ohio, you have to work for everything. There’s no Fifth Avenue. There’s no beach. This is a grind, grind, grind city and people wake up with the mind-set that ‘I can’t.’ So if you’re eating ‘I can’t’ for breakfast, how are you going to be successful?
“So this means a lot and I’m proud of Bron.”
FINDING HIS LEVEL
In trying season, Love ended on top
Kevin Love dealt with scrutiny and criticism throughout this season and is now an NBA champion. But there were questions as to whether Cleveland was actually better on the court without him.
In the three losses, Love had a plus-minus rating of minus-20. In three wins, he was plus-31. When Love missed Game 3, a runaway Cavaliers victory, because of a concussion, some fans lobbied for Love to be benched for Game 4. But he returned to score 11 points in that loss to the Warriors.
Love made his biggest impact in Game 7, scoring 9 points with 14 rebounds in 30 minutes, including a key defensive stop on Stephen Curry late in the fourth quarter. In the end, Love’s teammates credited him for his professionalism and confidence through a trying season.
“Well, I never got really trapped by the dogma and living with the results of other people’s thinking,” Love said. “I just continue to fight through it, and knew that I just had to have one great game. I was going to go out and be aggressive on both sides of the ball as far as rebounding the basketball. I was just told to rise above it, especially by my teammates. We knew what all of us were capable of. So much of the time, in particular with this Golden State team, how they matched up against certain teams, matchups dictate lineups. We had a number of guys that stepped up for us when we needed it bad.”
Love was an All-Star player when the Cavaliers acquired him for the rights to No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, a trade that could be viewed as regrettable. Love has produced two decent seasons with Cleveland, but the team could consider moving him this summer because he hasn’t fit into coach Tyronn Lue’s offense.
Lue opted for Richard Jefferson in key stretches during the Finals, while Love was relegated to a spot-up shooter. After averaging 26.1 points during his final season with the Timberwolves, Love averaged 16.4 in 2014-15 and 16.0 this past season.
During the postseason, Love averaged 14.7 points but shot just 38.5 percent from the field, including just 35.9 percent on 2-point shots. Still, he was able to make an impact in the biggest game in Cavaliers history.
“Yeah, you talk about vindication, this is the main reason that I came here and wanted to come here because I knew we’d have a great shot to win a title,” Love said. “Last year, I felt like it was taken away from me, especially with the injury. This year I got to have my first real playoff run, and it ended the way I wanted it to and we all wanted it to.”
Love has been a dramatically different player in Cleveland than he was in Minnesota. He was asked to be a spot-up shooter and less of a post presence; it has meant sacrificing his numbers and perhaps his reputation.
“I think it’s a lot of changes and adjustments playing with this team,” he said. “Obviously, different things are asked of me out there on the floor but I’ve been able to try to be effective in my role and we have guys who star in their roles and are able to step up. I think you see that with both teams here in the Finals.”
And it took months for Love to recover from the separated shoulder he sustained in Game 4 of last season’s Eastern Conference first-round series against the Celtics. Love missed the rest of that playoff run — in which the Cavaliers lost the Finals in six games to the Warriors — and then had to rehabilitate for the entire summer. The injury, sustained when Love got entangled with Boston’s Kelly Olynyk on a controversial play, impacted Love’s ability to contribute early in Cleveland’s season.
He was healthy for the playoffs.
“Starting the year, I’d say the only thing that kind of didn’t get me into rhythm is that I hadn’t shot the ball [before] September,” he said. “To really get my shoulder back to full strength, I wasn’t quite all there to start the season. We were still able to come out for the first month and a half before I was able to get there and play well.”
More mystery to Maker’s rise
The biggest surprise of draft night was the Bucks investing the 10th pick in high school product Thon Maker, who was projected to go in the late first round, at best. But the Australian center rose to the lottery and now becomes one of the biggest unknowns in recent draft history.
There is a popular YouTube video of Maker crossing up an opponent during a game in Virginia. Maker, 19, petitioned to the NBA to enter the draft because he graduated from Carlisle School in Martinsville, Va., in 2015, before attending prep school in Canada.
The NBA allowed the 7-footer to enter the draft. Maker slipped on some teams’ draft boards because of rumors he was in his early 20s. The Bucks were not one of those teams.
Maker was born in Sudan, moved to Uganda, and eventually went to Australia as a refugee. He moved to the United States to attend high school. The initial thought was Maker would attend college for at least one season before entering the draft.
“It was five years [ago] when I decided I first wanted to be a pro and take basketball serious,” Maker said. “So it’s been a long time because I’ve put in a lot of games, a lot of work, and to finally see it pay off, really — I lost words. When I was walking there, trying to say thank you to my family, just took lots of words, and I speak with them every day. It was a different situation. Mentally, you just can’t wait. Physically, you’re trying to control yourself, and at the same time it’s unreal.”
The NBA Draft was unkind to players such as Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis (second round, Memphis), Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere (28th overall, traded to Kings), Kentucky’s Cheick Diallo (second round, traded to Pelicans) and Maryland’s Diamond Stone (second round, traded to Clippers).
When Maker was drafted, there was a collective shock, especially since Milwaukee already has big men Greg Monroe and John Henson.
“When I walked past most of the guys in the green room, some of the guys looked at me sideways,” Maker said. “Some of the guys I already knew from high school, so we were like friends. So they were happy and some guys gave me daps. And other guys were like, it should be them. I don’t know, if I were in that situation, I would have been like, congrats, you know, you’ve made a step. Now go make a name for yourself.”
Maker denies that he is older than 19, although he has heard plenty of assertions.
“It did get to me in terms of me hearing about it, but it didn’t get to me personally because if it were true, I’d probably be like sideways about it, but it’s not true, so I’m comfortable,” he said. “I’m not angry or anything. I’ve got to learn what I can say and what I can’t say now.”
While the Celtics didn’t score a big draft-night trade like many expected and desired, they can still pull off a deal during free agency, which begins July 1. The Celtics have until July 3 to guarantee the deals of Amir Johnson ($12 million) and Jonas Jerebko ($5 million). Waiving both would create cap space, or the Celtics could trade the two before the guaranteed deadline. Contracts with nonguaranteed stipulations can help stimulate trades because the team that receives the contract can immediately waive the player and create cap flexibility. The Celtics have interest in keeping both players, but a primary reason why Boston offered Johnson so much money was its desire to add a nonguaranteed second year . . . Don’t be so surprised that the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka. The big man has showed signs of slowing down. Two years ago, Ibaka averaged 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.7 blocked shots per game. This season, those figures slipped to 12.6, 6.8, and 1.9. In Ibaka’s first three seasons, he attempted six 3-pointers. In the next two, he attempted 117. In the past two seasons, he attempted 389, and he shot just 32.6 percent from beyond the arc in 2015-16. Ibaka transformed from an interior player to a perimeter one and his numbers suffered. With the emergence of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, there was a lesser role for Ibaka and the Thunder decided to add defense and scoring punch in guard Victor Oladipo. The trade also shows that the Magic weren’t exactly enthralled with the young core they drafted over the past couple of years. Former Magic coach Scott Skiles was unhappy with the team’s younger players and wanted to move some of them for established veterans before he stepped down in May. Oladipo, the second overall pick three years ago, will definitely help the Thunder’s backcourt as a shooting guard, joining point guard Russell Westbrook. The two could make up the best defensive backcourt in the NBA. The question is whether Kevin Durant will join them at small forward.
Piece de resistance
LeBron James had maybe his finest hour during the NBA Finals. He helped the city of Cleveland end a 52-year championship drought and led the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, something that hadn’t been done before. Here’s a look at his series: