This story appears in the July 16, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
Rich Paul idled outside of Lakers headquarters last Friday morning, watching The Godfather in his car while waiting for shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to emerge from the team's practice facility. It was one of the hottest days in the history of Los Angeles, pushing 110º, and Paul cranked up both the air conditioning and the volume. "I'm on the scene where Tom Hagen goes to L.A. to help get Johnny Fontane the part in the movie," Paul reported. "You remember that? Fontane was beautiful—slick hair, expensive suit. But Jack Woltz was the film producer, this older wealthy guy, and he wouldn't cast Fontane because he never forgave him for messing with one of his actresses. That's why Woltz woke up with the horsehead in his bed."
Paul represents Caldwell-Pope, who signed a one-year contract worth $12 million with the Lakers early Friday, but he is also agent and consigliere to longtime friend LeBron James. On the night of June 30, Paul, James and Lakers president Magic Johnson gathered in the great room of James's Brentwood home for a summit that will live in L.A. lore, particularly if it yields a 17th gold banner in the rafters at Staples Center. There was no food or wine, no video montage or Power Point presentation.
"Magic was Magic, but he was also Earvin," Paul recalls. "It wasn't a pitch. It was just a conversation: 'Here's who I am. Here's what we do. Here's the culture we stand for. Here's what we're trying to accomplish. Here's how we look at you. Here's how we value you.'"
Paul was 21 when he met James at Akron-Canton Airport before a flight to Atlanta. Paul was selling throwback jerseys from the trunk of his car and James was starring at nearby St. Vincent-St. Mary High. In the terminal James noticed the Warren Moon throwback Paul was wearing and asked how he found it. Just like that, Paul stumbled upon a client. But as close as Paul has grown to the world's best basketball player since their chance encounter, on some levels he cannot relate. He listened to James and Johnson go back and forth, drawing parallels in the way they approach their games and lives.
"It was like watching two fish in a fish tank that speak a language the rest of the world can't understand," says Paul. "Magic understands what it's like to be LeBron. He was a 6'9" point guard. He was an MVP. But he was also Tragic Johnson." His stumbles in the 1984 Finals against Boston were every bit as severe as James's in 2011 against Dallas.
Paul is reluctant to overstate the significance of the sit-down because no single exchange delivered James to Los Angeles. Even pinpointing a primary motive behind James's third free-agent decision is difficult. "In 2010, when he went to Miami, it was about championships," Paul continues. "In 2014, when he went back to Cleveland, it was about delivering on a promise. In 2018, it was just about doing what he wants to do."
James was leaning toward L.A. for days, and according to those outside his direct orbit, for months. But Paul rejects the commonly held explanations that James was driven either to expand his Hollywood empire or spark an overnight superteam. In the hours after his commitment, the Lakers reached agreements with guard Lance Stephenson and center JaVale McGee—not exactly Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Any hope of the Lakers building an instant rebuttal to the Warriors was dashed.
During James's last days with the Cavaliers, as he fell to Golden State for the third time in four Finals, he repeatedly espoused the importance of intellect on the court. "In order to win, you've got to have talent, but you've got to be very cerebral," he said. "Listen, we're all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?" Once, he mentioned Rajon Rondo by name, in underlining the collective IQ of the 2008 Celtics.
The day after James announced he would sign a four-year, $153.3 million contract, L.A. added Rondo on a one-year, $9 million deal, and he will have to keep James from breaking his hand against any more grease boards this season. The Lakers' starting point guard, Lonzo Ball, is 20. Their wings, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, are 20 and 22. McGee and Stephenson are older, but age does not always produce acumen, as James discovered when 14-year veteran guard J.R. Smith forgot the score in Game 1 of the Finals, prompting the scrap with the whiteboard.
The acquisitions of Rondo, Stephenson and McGee suggest a sea change for L.A., and for James. A year ago the Lakers supplied their prospects much freedom, careful to ensure that veterans would not threaten confidence or playing time. Now, they've installed Rondo as competition for Ball and Stephenson for the wings, in hopes their pups are pushed. Coach Luke Walton may have the toughest job in the league. Fourth quarter, tie game, two minutes left, do you go with Ball at the point or Rondo? If it's Ball, how does that sit with Rondo? If it's Rondo, how does that sit with Ball's father?
Stylistically, the Lakers should be much the same. They finished third in pace last season and don't want to slow down, even though James's squads are typically more deliberate, with spot-up shooters scattered around the arc to provide space for his headlong drives. L.A. shot 34.5% from three, 29th in the NBA, and the additions of Rondo (33.3% last year) and Stephenson (28.9%) won't help. James will be surrounded by more playmaking and defense than he was in Cleveland, with far less marksmanship. "We might have a roster where there are five ballhandlers on the court at one time," Rondo says. "Obviously a lot of teams are shooting the three ball, but I think it's kind of crazy to think you're going to outshoot Golden State. There are other ways you have to try to beat those guys. We're going to try to crack that code."
At the moment L.A. appears nowhere close, especially with center DeMarcus Cousins joining the Warriors as a fifth All-Star starter. But the Lakers' immediate outlook could change with one phone call to San Antonio. James did not go to L.A. because he believed Leonard, the Spurs' All-Star forward, would follow him. But he safely assumes that the Lakers, with their young talent, bedazzled front office and inherent recruiting advantages, will eventually find or develop another headliner or two. He is in no rush, those close to him maintain, but at 33 he also does not have prime years to waste.
"You put any group of players around LeBron James, he's been to the Finals [eight] straight times. My expectations are the exact same thing," Rondo says. "I expect to win." James can appreciate Rondo's guile, McGee's length and Stephenson's grit, even though he has clashed with each of them in the past. Their presence, like Boogie's in Golden State, could be fleeting. Rondo, McGee and Stephenson are all on one-year contracts, part of the cast but not the core. At this point it's hard to even identify the nucleus, beyond James and Johnson. The Lakers love Kuzma, remain loath to trade Ingram and have invested heavily in Ball. But nobody signs James to be part of a protracted youth movement. His patience rarely extends past February.
James is coming off a standard season—27.5 points, 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds—and a superlative playoff run. Eight times he scored more than 40 points. Four times he posted triple doubles. Twice he sank buzzer-beaters. But when he left Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, the Warriors celebrating again outside his locker room, he looked like a man who had kept banging his head into the same wall. There is no guarantee the noise will abate now that he is in L.A. He could have surely improved his odds in Philadelphia or Houston. And if losing is inevitable, which it may be in the Golden State age, he could have at least assured himself eternal love in Cleveland.
But James, like any aspiring Hollywood producer, thinks big. A juggernaut on South Beach. A homecoming to Northeast Ohio. And now, a celebrity marriage in Los Angeles, the union of the NBA's signature player and its signature franchise. LeBron and the Lakers, a match made in commercial heaven. Together, as all sorts of A-list couples could attest, their wattage does not simply double. It multiplies exponentially.
James's championship in Cleveland is forever, but the charm of his return is gone, replaced by new expectation in L.A. Basketball's biggest fish has entered the aquarium.