Jerry West has called his decision to leave the Golden State Warriors organization that he helped build into a burgeoning dynasty in favor of taking a similar consulting role with the Los Angeles Clippers the “last adventure of my life.” The goal of that quest? Well, it might be the biggest free-agent prize the league has to offer.
According to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports, the “grand plan” for West — a Hall of Fame player during his years wearing forum blue and gold who helped build a pair of Lakers dynasties during a quarter-century as a scout, coach and general manager, has won a pair of Executive of the Year trophies and served as a vital voice in the Warriors’ front office over the past six years — as he joins up with Clips decision-makers Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank is to recruit and land the one and only LeBron James.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, West’s potential ability to improve the Clippers’ chances of landing the Cleveland Cavaliers star in free agency in the summer of 2018 was a significant factor in his hiring and in the willingness of owner Steve Ballmer to pay West between $4 and $5 million annually. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the team’s plans.
There’s all kinds of work to do before then, like re-signing James’ close friend/Clippers point guard Chris Paul this summer (which is still believed to be likely) and convincing five-time All-Star forward Blake Griffin to come back too (which is considered more dicey). There’s the Carmelo Anthony situation that hasn’t gone anywhere over these past few months. A scenario remains possible where J.J. Redick, via a sign-and-trade, would be sent along with another Clippers player to the Knicks in exchange for Anthony, who is also close friends with James and Paul.
But James, who has a home and an increasing amount of off-court business in Los Angeles, is at the center of the Clippers’ dreams. And West, as the Clippers see it, is the perfect recruiter to lure James away from his home state.
Amick’s report comes on the heels of Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reporting last week on his podcast that “within Cleveland and around the league, [executives] feel that [James is] very much in play to leave [the Cleveland Cavaliers] again and likely head out West to one of the two LA teams.” Combine the rising volume of those rumbles with the grumbling coming out of Cleveland — and from LeBron’s Twitter account — over the departure of respected Cavs general manager David Griffin, and add in James’ ever-expanding entertainment portfolio, and you start to see some potentially connectable dots.
The theoretical connection becomes a bit stronger when you consider the actual connection between James and West. The two are separated in age by 47 years, but both stand among the greatest players in NBA history … and share the unique experience of having met with failure more often than success come the NBA Finals, with West compiling a 1-8 record in the championship round and James sitting at 3-5 after falling to the Warriors earlier this month.
During last summer’s 2016 NBA Finals between West’s Warriors and James’ Cavs, “The Logo” lit into those who would use James’ losing Finals record to denigrate his accomplishments, and delivered a passionate assessment of LeBron’s greatness in the process. From Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press:
“If I were him, frankly, I’d probably want to strangle you guys,” West told a group of media members. “It’s ridiculous.” […]
“He’s carried teams on his shoulders,” said West, now an executive board member and consultant with the Warriors, who lead the rematch 1-0 heading into Game 2 on Sunday. “They’ve been to the Finals six straight times. How many times have they been the favorite? None. Zero. Ok? Grossly unfair to him.
“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. 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.”
They didn’t, of course, and they won’t, because a figure and personality as towering as James will always demand the hottest of takes and undivided attention. The scrutiny only figures to increase as we draw closer to July 2018, when James can decline the player option he holds for the 2018-19 season and re-enter unrestricted free agency, where the Clippers would look to get a meeting with, and commitment from, the King.
There would be a long, long line of teams with similar hopes should LeBron hit the market, including West’s longtime employer, the Los Angeles Lakers. Under the leadership of new president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and new general manager Rob Pelinka, the Lakers have begun setting themselves up for a superstar-sparked reboot in the near future, shipping center Timofey Mozgov and 2015 No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that could clear as much as $30 million in cap space in the summer of 2018 — and, with some more maneuvering, could open up as much as $64 million in room, enough for two max contracts, next summer. Early indications are that the Lakers would like to fill those slots with Paul George (who reportedly wants to be a Laker, and for whom the Lakers could trade now, though the Indiana Pacers are reportedly slow-playing that) and LeBron. (Naturally.)
The Clippers’ path to carving out enough space to make James a max offer is a bit tougher. They’ve got the free agencies of Paul and Griffin to contend with this summer, and you’d imagine LeBron would want, at a minimum, to know CP3 was there and taken care of before he’d consider coming over. DeAndre Jordan’s set to enter free agency next summer, too, and while the Clippers could try to trade him to add youth and improve their depth — a path ESPN’s Chris B. Haynes reports they’re currently exploring — they’d have to replace him if they choose not to pay him.
Multi-year commitments to Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Wesley Johnson would have to be excised, with suitable replacements brought on at lower costs. Even if Doc, Frank, West and company could swing all those deals, LeBron might still have to actually be willing to take that pay cut to play with one (or more!) of his Banana Boat buddies. It’s a hard plan to execute, and maybe even tougher to sell.
If you had to pick one guy to do it, though, Jerry West seems like a pretty damn good choice.
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