That finally feels like a realistic notion after what was undoubtedly the best offseason in franchise history. But acquiring both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard was no easy task — just ask Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, who in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times revealed details of a meeting this summer in Malibu between him, Leonard and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer.
It includes Leonard’s brutally honest admission that the Clippers roster, before adding George, simply wouldn’t cut it.
“He said, ‘I want to play for you,’ and he pointed at me,” Rivers told the Times. “He said, ‘Mr. Ballmer, I love the things you do and what you stand for, but your team is not good enough and if you don’t change your team, I’m not coming.”
The Clippers soon presented Leonard with a list of players to potentially pair him with, Rivers said — a bold move considering the team didn’t know if any were realistically obtainable. According to the Times, the only player that piqued Leonard’s interest was George, who had signed a four-year, $137 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder last year. Rivers claims he knew Oklahoma City “wanted to break their team up” and initiated a full-court press to obtain the star forward.
Rivers told the Times the Thunder initially declined their trade offer, which included a league-record six draft picks in addition to rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations for the Clippers, actually texted Rivers on the day of the trade to tell him the deal was off.
For the head coach, the news stung. But imagining Leonard on the Lakers was simply unfathomable.
“I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!' " Rivers recalled to the Times. “I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”
George’s July 6 trade to the Clippers sent shock waves throughout the league and delivered a devastating blow to the rival Lakers, who had traded for Anthony Davis two weeks prior with dreams of pairing him, Leonard and LeBron James. It also came as a surprise to fans of the Toronto Raptors, who sought to re-sign their Finals MVP after winning the NBA championship.
Thursday’s report comes on the same day ESPN detailed the NBA’s new anti-tampering proposal, which features harsher penalties such as increased fines and the potential revocation of teams’ draft picks. The NBA will also conduct an annual “random auditing of five teams’ communications with rival front offices and player agents,” according to ESPN.
While there’s no indication the proposed changes specifically originated from the Clippers’ aggressive pursuit of Leonard (Rivers was fined $50,000 for comparing him to Michael Jordan in May) or the Lakers’ obvious interest in Davis and other stars (which saw former team president Magic Johnson face several tampering fines in recent years), it’s clear the rules are meant to influence how these situations play out in the future.
But if last season offered any evidence, teams are willing to pay if it means a better chance of obtaining the star players they covet.