* Tonight on TNT: Game 5, Clippers vs. Warriors (10:30 ET)
LOS ANGELES -- When he walks onto any court, it’s suddenly his court. It was that way in the 1960s and early ‘70s when he was known as “Mr. Clutch,” and it is that way now, even at age 80.
Jerry West cuts a figure you cannot easily forget, and not just because his silhouette inspired the NBA’s logo.
Sporting silver hair and a smile, West seems far from the brooding figure he was as a Hall of Fame combo guard for the Los Angeles Lakers -- and later as a general manager (also most famously with the Lakers). He’s pleasant and approachable before and after games. But when the ball goes up, West shows his trademark intensity while watching from courtside.
Only West has had two legendary careers in the NBA. The highest honor any player could receive is to have their silhouette used as the league’s logo. And more than a few GMs have remarked, regarding the annual Executive of the Year Award: They ought to name it after him.
He has scaled back, to an extent and his official title with the LA Clippers is consultant. Yet his influence and fingerprints are all over a franchise about to embark on the most important summer since Steve Ballmer took over as owner six years ago.
Ballmer’s smartest decision was building a bond with Bill Gates. Doing so made him a billionaire 25 times over. Perhaps the next smartest move was hiring West, which may make Ballmer a champion.
It all depends on what the Clippers -- with West dropping knowledge in the back room -- do with their money, assets, Draft picks and salary cap space this summer. And what does West say?
“We know we can be a player.”
Ballmer fosters winning atmosphere
But first, he will address the elephant in the room. Sort of, anyway.
Because you’ve asked, he hasn’t heard from the Lakers about any possible return there after Magic Johnson’s hasty resignation as team president. Yes, he obviously knows Jeanie Buss. Yes, there was an uncomfortable departure more than a decade ago because West lost a bitter power struggle with then-coach Phil Jackson (who also had a relationship with Jeanie Buss). Yes, she chose Magic, who had no experience, to run the Lakers instead of West.
No, West insists he holds no resentment or grudges -- the Lakers, after all, still employ one of his sons, Ryan. And no, he would not glance at the caller ID and just let the phone ring if Jeanie Buss did call.
Yet, West isn’t exactly waiting by the phone, either.
“I don’t work there and I don’t know what’s going on over there,” West said.
He seems all-in with the Clippers, if only because they hired him quickly once his advisory role with the Warriors ended more than a year ago. West was somewhat surprised by the interest, yet it demonstrated how much respect there is for his opinions about personnel.
He’s a people person, a man of the people. ... I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with some outstanding people and leaders who were really good, but this guy’s at the top of the list."
Aside from his stellar front office work with the Lakers (which resulted in eight NBA titles), it was West who helped build the Memphis Grizzlies (after they relocated from Vancouver) and advised the Warriors not to trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love.
It was West who, fresh on the job, pushed the Clippers to trade Blake Griffin last season, which opened cap space.
Naturally, West downplays his role. He says the Clippers are set in the front office with basketball ops president Lawrence Frank calling the shots (with help from Michael Winger and Trent Redden) and Doc Rivers as coach. He saves his biggest applause for Ballmer, though, and said the NBA’s wealthiest owner will have the biggest sway this summer when the Clippers chase a superstar.
“I think everyone talks about his money when they speak about him,” West said. “I found him one of the most unique people I’ve been around. He’s a people person, a man of the people. It’s a breath of fresh air to be around him. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with some outstanding people and leaders who were really good, but this guy’s at the top of the list.
"He embraces the people and wants to learn and is great with our front office, with Lawrence and our coaches. I don’t see any flaws with him as an owner. I wish all owners could be like him.”
West says Ballmer has created a culture that impacts every corner of the franchise. These aren’t your father’s Clippers, nor the one that employed West’s close friend and former teammate, Elgin Baylor.
“We have competitive people in our front office,” West said. “And Steve is as competitive as it comes. And that’s why I’m hopeful we can show (free agents) to look at what’s been accomplished in a short time with him as an owner and a lot of the basketball people we have involved, along with Doc’s resume, Lawrence’s resume and how people are treated here.”
West gushes with praise over the job Rivers has done, too. He got 48 wins from a team that lacked an All-Star and shifted gears mid-season by trading top scorer Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Doc’s been phenomenal,” West said. “He’s got a bunch of guys believing in themselves in order to win as many games as we did. I always try to predict before the season in my own mind how many games we can win, and I was off by some. Usually I’m not off by very many. It has been amazing, really fun.
“When you see people competing and playing hard and believing in practice, it has an enormous amount of what happens during the games. I’m thrilled for Doc. A season like this has to be very rewarding.”
‘Cap space is fool’s gold’
The Clippers find themselves in an interesting position, as they could sign two free agents to near-max contracts. Already, they have a solid core in Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet and Pat Beverley (should he re-sign). Plus, of course, there are the charms of living and working in Los Angeles.
Is this enough to get a Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant and/or Jimmy Butler and/or Kemba Walker? The Clippers may never be in this great of a position again. West, however, throws caution to the wind.
“Cap space is fool’s gold,” he said. “We have to spend it wisely or not spend it. One of the two.
“Again, it starts with ownership. A lot of people talk about free agency. You have to have a compelling reason for somebody to come to you. With the enormous amount of money that players have today obviously that’s good, but the top free agents want more. We’re obviously in the position to do something but we have to make a compelling case for people. It’s nice to be one of the teams in that position, but we have to make a case going forward.”
The Clippers are sitting on a potential gold mine … if they manage it correctly. The Harris trade fetched the Miami Heat’s unprotected No. 1 pick in 2021. That pick is projected to be very attractive because of the Heat’s salary-cap situation and unknown desire to rebuild quickly. They also have the Sixers’ 2020 first-round pick (which is protected). Could those picks plus some Clippers players be used in potential trades (for maybe Anthony Davis)?
“We have a lot of assets to work with, Draft picks that are very attractive,” West said.
Everyone is here because they love it. Everyone kids each other and if you don’t like to be kidded, don’t come. It’s fun. Everyone is having fun.”
In short, West is thrilled to part of a situation that could be franchise-changing.
“This has been like a shot of adrenalin in my arm, to be involved with the people I’m involved with,” he said. “Every time I go over to the office, people are happy. Everyone is not there because they have a job. Everyone is here because they love it. Everyone kids each other and if you don’t like to be kidded, don’t come. It’s fun. Everyone is having fun.”
While West could be salty or troll the Lakers and their perceived disorganization and dysfunction, he expresses the exact opposite sentiment for them.
“It would be great if the Lakers were great and the Clippers were great,” he said. “With the people they have over there, they’re going to get a lot better. You see and hear a lot of negative things. People expect the Lakers to be up here because they have LeBron James.
“There’s so much more to this game and building a team. It’s all about finding the people who compliment him best. Those young kids were probably looking at him in awe through the season and you certainly had no control over the injuries. With LeBron in the mix, anything’s capable of happening. If they do something this summer, obviously it’s going to be even better for them.”
But West also wants to make something very clear: “We want a better summer.”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here .
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