Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, one of the architects of the turnaround, amended MacLean’s declaration with an eye toward next June.
“This is not our finest moment,” Rivers told the crowd, which included 200 media members, dozens of Clippers employees and hundreds of other onlookers. “That’s coming. This feels like a movement. We’ve done some winning. We want to be the winners. That’s our goal.”
After playing second fiddle to the glitzier and more accomplished Los Angeles Lakers since moving to Los Angeles from San Diego in 1984 during the “Showtime” heyday, the Clippers savored their day. They drew a bigger mob than the Lakers had for Anthony Davis’s introduction, owner Steve Ballmer was welcomed like a conquering hero with bear hugs and back slaps from fans, and Leonard brushed off the notion that his organization was playing in a shadow cast by LeBron James & Co.
“In the last few years, from the basketball standpoint, the Clippers have been better [than the Lakers],” said Leonard, the 2019 NBA Finals MVP after capturing the title with Toronto. “If we go to the championship and win and we don’t get any [media] coverage, that’s fine with me.”
While Leonard and George drew hearty cheers as the Clippers unveiled a mural with their images, their pairing has rankled some rivals. The NBA has launched an investigation into the summer free agency period, which saw numerous deals agreed to within hours of the June 30 start date and produced anonymously sourced allegations that one of Leonard’s representatives sought illegal benefits.
The Clippers, who beat out the Raptors and the Lakers to sign Leonard as a free agent and traded five first-round picks and two players to the Oklahoma City Thunder for George, maintained that their offseason success was fairly won. Despite an aggressive, season-long pursuit that saw Rivers fined $50,000 for tampering after he compared Leonard to Michael Jordan on ESPN, Clippers President Lawrence Frank denied any illegal contact with Leonard or other rule-breaking.
“We didn’t recruit,” Frank said. “We went to many [of Leonard’s] games to scout and research. We never had a conversation with Kawhi or with any of his people. We always felt by doing it out in front that we were being very, very transparent. We know the rules. We follow the rules. With how Steve does business, his integrity is number one. We are always going to be above the line.”
People with knowledge of the Leonard contract negotiations said his chief request was to play with George, his fellow Southern California native. Leonard approved of the Clippers’ returning players but strongly believed a second superstar was necessary to maximize his chances of winning his third title (he also earned a ring with San Antonio).
Leonard respected George’s scoring ability and defensive intensity, and he had long harbored ideas of a possible partnership. The two superstars both noted how they had nearly played together for the Indiana Pacers early in their careers before Leonard was sent to the Spurs in a 2011 draft night trade. Leonard told the crowd he was “not a guy who wants to have it all on me, seeking all the attention,” while George insisted that he, too, was “not coming in with an ego.”
“This was destiny,” said George, who grew up a Clippers fan in Palmdale, Calif. “We were supposed to play together. How we play is a lost art in the NBA. We’re guys who want to get after it on both ends.”
Rivers coached the Boston Celtics to the 2008 title on the strength of an elite defense, and he couldn’t hide his excitement at the prospect of adding two all-defensive talents. As he floated from one interview to the next, Rivers praised Frank’s front office for landing the summer’s biggest prize and noted that his new wing duo “makes us different” than the league’s 29 other teams.
Then, with a triumphant and knowing smile, he recalled his infamous comparison of Leonard to Jordan.
“Kawhi, his body, he looks the most like Michael Jordan,” Rivers said. “Can I say that now without being fined?”