LOS ANGELES—Four days before Chris Paul and Blake Griffin opted out of their contracts, a week-and-a-half prior to the opening of NBA free agency, the Los Angeles Clippers introduced a man who may be the biggest catch in franchise history.
Jerry West won’t be lacing up for the Clippers—though, with J.J. Redick soon to be on the market, they could use a shooting guard of The Logo’s former caliber. And no, West won’t be pulling eight or nine figures out of team owner Steve Ballmer’s pocket. Instead, he’ll serve as a special consultant to Clippers brass, just as he did with the Golden State Warriors.
When West took a seat on the podium at the Clippers training facility in Playa Vista next to Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank—the heads of L.A.’s basketball operations—he lent a newfound legitimacy to a Clippers organization.
“We’re not going to rest until we are the best,” Rivers said during his opening remarks. “Obviously, you look at us and you look at all the things we are doing, we are stepping and marching towards that direction.”
What direction, specifically? That remains unclear. Paul and Griffin are both expected to seriously consider overtures from other teams in free agency, despite L.A.’s ability to splash more cash than any other suitor (courtesy of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which disincentivizes free agents to flee). J.J. Redick, a staple of the Clippers’ offense, looks like he might bolt along with a handful of other role players who will be seeking new contracts this summer: Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights and Raymond Felton.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: the potential pursuit of LeBron James next summer.
By all accounts, including his own, West won’t be the one steering the Clippers’ ship here. That task still falls to Rivers and Frank, his top deputy.
“I will not be a shrinking violet when giving my opinion,” West said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not making the decision.”
But West will have plenty of input and cachet at the bargaining table. Like any front-facing executive, West will be judged by the superstars he recruits and retains.
West’s reservoir of basketball knowledge is practically without parallel in today’s NBA. He’s had a hand in nine championships as a player or executive, including two titles in three years at Golden State. “To have a wise sage like that, to be able to pick his brain, to be able to share experiences, for him to kind of be able to impart wisdom at different times,” Frank said after the 2017 draft.
“Jerry gets people to do things they thought they would never do,” said Warren LeGarie, the president of WGL Management, executive director of the NBA Las Vegas Summer League and a long-time league powerbroker.
At Golden State, when Warriors general manager Bob Myers considered whether to pick up then-head coach Mark Jackson’s contract option in 2014, West argued the team would be better served with a different voice. When the possibility of swapping Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love arose later that same summer, West lobbied on Thompson’s behalf, just as he had when the Dubs selected him at No. 11 pick in the 2011 draft.
And when the Warriors needed one more voice to seal the deal with Kevin Durant last summer, who did they put on the phone? West, naturally.
“I love Jerry because he always cuts to the chase,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said after Game 2 of the 2017 Finals, per NBA TV. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything; he’s going to tell you what he thinks.”
Paul and Griffin staying—or James coming—will define the Clippers’ next five seasons. Paul can sign a five-year deal worth upward of $200 million with the Clippers. A five-year pact for Griffin could soar past $170 million. James, meanwhile, may feel the pull of his family (per Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding) and non-basketball businesses in Southern California. If the Clippers can provide James with a platform on which to solidify his legacy, they have a chance. But that’s not happening without Paul or Griffin.
In truth, there won’t likely be room under one salary cap to employ all three. Even if DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson all opt out of their deals and the Clippers cut bait with Jamal Crawford and Brice Johnson, they will be hard-pressed to find enough financial flexibility to fit James, at a starting salary of close to $40 million, next to Paul, also nearing $40 million, and Griffin, who will have eclipsed $30 million on the Clippers’ cap by the summer of 2018.
Should Paul and Griffin both bolt this summer, L.A. would have more than enough cap space to chase big fish in 2018, but would have neither the existing talent base nor the supply of team-building assets needed to attract anyone approaching James’ stratosphere. Suppose Griffin leaves and Paul stays, the Clippers would have one of James’ closest friends on hand and the ability to carve out cap space for the King.
And if that’s enough for L.A. to get its foot in the door with James, West could be the one to draw him all the way in.
Over the years, West has gone out of his way to praise James, a great player with whom he shares a losing record in the Finals; West went 1-8 during his playing days, while James sits at 3-5.
''I don't want to sound like Donald Trump, but it's hard for me to believe that someone doesn't recognize his greatness. It's hard for me to believe,” West said during the 2016 Finals, per the Associated Press’ Jon Krawczynski (h/t Yahoo Sports). “This guy does everything. He's like a Swiss Army knife. He does everything. And he's competitive as hell. And frankly, I wish people would leave him alone.''
James, meanwhile, is a student of the game. He understands the history of basketball, that it’s been written by transcendent figures—like himself, like Pat Riley (LeBron’s boss in Miami), like West.
The relationship between the two is more than one of mutual admiration. As ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin reported in June 2016, James refers to West as “The Godfather” for his gravitas within the game.
Landing James’ signature would more than validate West’s paycheck (between $4 and $5 million per year, according to USA Today’s Sam Amick). But there’s more that he can do, and more that the Clippers should hope to draw from the 79-year-old, before what he calls the “last adventure of my life” comes to an end.
“He understands the importance of communicating with the athletes and has a good grasp on all facets with the business of basketball,” said Aaron Goodwin, one of the NBA’s most prominent player agents.
For all that a Banana Boat reunion could do for the organization within the next handful of years, the Clippers don’t seem content to contend within a brief window. The goal is to build something sustainable, an organization that can compete not only with the Lakers in L.A., but also with the league at large.
Over the past year, Rivers has poured millions from Ballmer’s pockets into fleshing out a staff of scouts, consultants, coaches, coordinators and other trusted hands to bring the Clippers up to speed with the modern NBA. This fall, L.A. will make a much-needed leap forward in player development by opening its own G League operation in nearby Ontario, California.
“A career in the NBA is not based on three years or four years. It’s based on 10 or 12 years,” West said. “I think this is what Doc’s mission is with his younger players. He’s got to put them in positions where they can thrive.”
West knows better than just about anyone what young talent can do to transform a franchise. In 1996, he helped engineer a teenage Kobe Bryant’s arrival with the Lakers. After leaving L.A. in the early 2000s, West oversaw the Memphis Grizzlies’ transformation from a fledgling franchise into a competitive enterprise. Once his work was done in Tennessee, West took his talents back to the West Coast, where he played a part in the Golden State Warriors setting a new standard at both the major and minor league levels.
If West can bring that wisdom to bear on the Clippers—and those ahead of him in the team’s pecking order allow him to do so—the club could be all the better for it, in both the near and the long term. As much as it matters for the Clippers to appeal to front-line free agents, they will forever find the climb to the top of the mountain Sisyphean without nailing the finer points of talent acquisition, player maintenance and development at all levels.
For his part, West already appears to be dug into his latest and last challenge in the NBA. On draft night, after the Clippers had purchased two picks (Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans at No. 39 and South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell at No. 48), Frank stepped in front of a gaggle of cameras and microphones to answer questions about the team’s evening.
And who, pray tell, popped in during that press conference? Not Rivers, but West, clad in a pink gingham shirt—not that he needed any help drawing attention.
“He has a great eye for talent,” Frank said of West. “He’s one of the great architects in all of sports.”
His next project? Figure out how to fortify the Clippers’ foundation to contend now and remain relevant long after he’s gone.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.