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NBA lawsuit reveals underhanded competition off the court

By Isaac Ang Sept. 29, 2021

Daniel Choi Art

In a surprise move to other National Basketball Association (NBA) players and agents, Nerlens Noel, currently a power forward for the New York Knicks, turned down a four year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks during summer 2017. Before the seven figure offer, Nerlens had played on a rookie-scale contract, making his decision even more perplexing. After failing to receive higher value offers, Noel—vocal in his disappointment—settled for a qualifying $4.1 million offer.

Shock over the decision died down soon after, but Noel’s recent decision to publicly sue and sever relationships with former agent Rich Paul for illegal recruitment and $58 million in lost salary brought the issue back to the forefront of NBA media coverage. Currently, Noel has a 3-year contract with the Knicks for $32 million and is represented by agent George Langberg.

Like Noel, most players in the NBA have agents because they lack the time and experience to network. Agents help players negotiate contracts and find spots on teams. In return, players pay a small commission—usually five to 10 percent of their contract. Through Klutch Sports, Paul has represented several major basketball stars, including LeBron James since 2012. In fact, as Paul’s first client, James played a key role in helping start Klutch Sports by convincing other players to join the agency.

In his lawsuit, Noel argued that Paul poached, or stole, Noel from his previous agent Happy Walters. When the $70 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks was proposed, Paul allegedly told Noel that Noel was a “$100 million man.” Convinced that a better deal would appear, Noel followed Paul’s instruction to reject the $70 million deal and fire Walters. Instead of securing a $100 million salary, Noel signed only a $4.1 million qualifying offer the following summer.

“Agents may not be totally transparent with their client. Consequently, agents should propose courses of action as they have experience, but clients should have the power to reject that decision,” Junior Nolan Ching said.

Noel also claimed that Paul breached his fiduciary duty, or the responsibility of an agent to financially benefit their client by not presenting strategies nor marketing Noel to teams when Noel’s thumb injury made his career plummet in 2018. Lacking expert advice, Noel signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder for a minimum salary. Moreover, the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers had contacted Paul about recruiting Noel, but Paul never responded to their calls. Unfortunately, Noel was not the first client Paul mismanaged. In 2017, Paul told Shabazz Muhammad to decline a $40 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Bleacher Report. After Muhammad declined the deal, he signed with the Miwaukee Bucks for $347,525 for a year.

Mismanagement has happened in other NBA agencies as well. In July, Excel Sports—another agent firm—told Victor Oladipo, who played for the Indiana Pacers, that they could offer more money than Oladipo’s previous agent. Oladipo left his agent, but Excel failed to provide the additional money. NBC Sports reports that poaching became more prevalent during the 2011 lockout—caused by a stalemate over team income losses—prevented teams from signing or trading players. The lockout made players desperate for money, and agents—promising the players more money—were able to poach many players from their previous agents.

The pervasiveness of player manipulation in the NBA spells out dramatic implications for the agent system and indicates that it may need revision. Agents poach players before they have a lucrative deal to increase their share of the contract. However, this puts agents that do not poach at an unfair disadvantage, as they have fewer opportunities to get lucrative deals. Over the past few years, agents have proposed two rules that could alleviate poaching: agents should be prohibited from contacting clients of other agents and agents receiving clients should pay one percent commission to the player’s previous agent, according to Bleacher Report.

“There should be heavy punishments, such as removing their certification, for agents who poach. If the NBA could set rules to prevent poaching in the first place, lawsuits such as Noel’s would no longer be needed,” Sophomore Sucheer Maddury said.

Across professional sports leagues, agents and teams continuously poach players to increase their chance of success and financial gain. In 2016, League of Legends (LoL) player Adrian Ma left his team Phoenix1 to join team EchoFox. According to Esports Observer, Echo Fox may have influenced Ma, violating rules set by the developer of LoL, Riot Games. In 2018, National Football League sports management firm SOFla Sports sued another firm, Entertainers & Players Innovative Consultants, for allegedly poaching fifteen clients, including Kareem Johnson of the Denver Broncos and Damonate Kazee of the Dallas Cowboys.

Noel’s lawsuit tarnished Paul’s reputation, but it also has brought to light the unhealthy level of competition and hidden corruption in the NBA as well as other athletic organizations.


About the Contributors

Isaac Ang

Staff Writer

Isaac Ang is a junior at Leland High School and staff writer for the Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys reading, playing ping pong, and experiencing nature. He is an avid rock climber. His academic interests include math, science, and coding.

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