LOS ANGELES — Older than both of his new charges combined, having made less money than they pocket in one season. On the surface, then, it appears Jerry West has little in common with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George other than a job working for the Clippers.
Yet their shared basketball lineage is clear. In the 1960s and 70s, West would drop 30 points on any given night and then silence the man he was guarding on other nights — or the same one, if needed. The Godfather of the two-way player, those rarest of NBA talents, West set the Hall of Fame example Leonard and George have been following since. The Clippers’ wing duo similarly torture opponents on both ends, swiping passes on defense and hitting shots from all over on offense.
West was the flag-bearer for baseline-to-baseline excellence during his NBA career, all spent with the Lakers, and now as a consultant to the Clippers has one of the best seats in the house — front row, directly behind the basket near the home bench — to study two teammates who hope to do a respectable imitation of him.
It’s a high bar to clear. “The Logo” was unrivaled for his broad two-way skills (although Oscar Robertson worshippers might object). Still, if the Clippers manage to sip champagne in June and stage the most unlikely championship parade in L.A. history, it’ll be because Kawhi and George took matters into their own hands by leaving 94 feet worth of fingerprints.
“They’re fun to watch,” West said.
And you know why he feels that way.
In the decade that just finished, only seven players averaged at least 25 points per game in a season and also made All-Defensive first team in that same season or another: Leonard, George, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. If you include all of the 2000s, then add Tim Duncan and Gary Payton to that list. That’s it.
Yes, there were others who, on merits, could put up a case for being in such company. Chris Paul, for example, had the defensive honors without the scoring average. In any event, the elite two-way NBA player is the closest thing to a five-tool baseball player, both celebrated not only for their talent, but also for their scarcity.
When Kawhi weighed factors in free agency last summer, he wanted the Clippers to find someone like him — someone who could be a tag-team partner in front of both baskets. The Lakers already had such a combination across town in Davis and LeBron, although Father Time, as he usually does, was beginning to steal LeBron’s defensive desire.
There was only one candidate, then, who reflected Kawhi’s skills. Once the trade with Oklahoma City was finalized and George was in the fold, the Clippers, with two members of the two-way club, saw their championship hopes soar.
“We’re in sync in a lot of ways,” George said of Leonard. “Just in how we see things on the floor and how the game should be played.”
In conversations with NBA talent evaluators, elite two-way players are hard to find because of the athletic ability and knack for scoring that’s required. Many offensive or defensive specialists are made to feel comfortable in their own skin, often being rewarded handsomely for being one-dimensional. It takes a determined player to check both boxes. If most two-way players are made instead of born, the question becomes: Is it harder to turn a shutdown defender into a big scorer, or vice versa?
“Man,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, “that’s a tough one to answer.”
Leonard and George are self-made scorers who never lost their DNA for defense. Leonard averaged 7.9 points per game as a rookie and had future Hall of Famers ahead of him in the playbook on the Spurs. His jumper was flat and he rarely looked to shoot 3-pointers. Meanwhile in Indiana, George averaged 7.8 ppg and yielded to Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy, Darren Collison and … Tyler Hansbrough.
West was much the same, excelling on defense initially, although he quickly developed shooting instincts and came into the NBA as a complete player.
I always felt it was about defense first. I didn’t have a choice, really.”
Clippers executive Jerry West
“Defense was the strongest part of my game when I first started,” West said. “You can score points, but I always felt it was about defense first. I didn’t have a choice, really. When I was in college, I always had to guard the best person, regardless what size they were.
“I was 6-4 and blessed with long arms. And I had a gift to know angles and learn the art of anticipation. It was something that was developed in college because we pressed and trapped. We did all the things so important for being a defender. I began thinking a play ahead. Thinking who you’re guarding.”
So why did West make the NBA All-Defensive team only five times? Because the league didn’t create the award until the 1969-70 season, his 10th. After that, and well into his twilight, he made it every year (four first teams, one second team) until his final season … when he played only 31 games because of knee troubles and a strained groin.
Remember, too, that the NBA didn’t track steals until 1973-74, West’s last season. Yet West, then 36, averaged 2.6 steals that season despite playing hurt. Fast-forward to the present day, and that average hasn’t been touched in 10 NBA seasons.
Back then, the NBA also had fewer teams, which caused a greater concentration of top players, which meant West didn’t get many breathers in terms of nightly defensive assignments. He constantly saw John Havlicek, Hal Greer, Dave Bing, Lenny Wilkens, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, Earl Monroe — all the sharpshooters and quick-movers of that day. Unless that player was a center or power forward, chances are good that West would be assigned to him.
“Jerry was tenacious,” Frazier said. “You knew you were in for a tough night when you played the Lakers.”
What’s astonishing is how West had the juice for defense while burning so many calories on offense. Understand that for a stretch of 11 seasons, West averaged at least 25.9 ppg. Mid-career, he added point guard responsibilities and overall, he averaged 39.2 mpg — more than what many of today’s players muster in a season. Not to mention that West, and other players of that era, lacked all the modern conveniences (private jets, advanced physical therapy, reduced back-to-back games, load management, etc., etc.) enjoyed today.
“I was very fortunate,” West said. “I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. The competitive part of you, you’re either born with it or learn it. Also you have to really hate to lose. I think sometimes if you can make a difference in a game with a defensive play, a steal here and there, it’s just crucial, so you do it and don’t worry about offense until you needed to.”
In the 1965 playoff series against the Baltimore Bullets, Elgin Baylor suffered a knee injury in Game 1 and was done. West responded by scoring 49 points in the Lakers’ win. In Game 2, he went for 52. In the next two games, both losses, he had 44 and 48. Game 5 produced 43 in a win, and in the closeout game he had 42. His 46.3 points is still the highest for any playoff series.
And of course, he remains the only Finals MVP winner who didn’t win the championship. That was made possible in the 1969 series when Celtics player-coach Bill Russell disrespectfully refused to double-team West in the first two games. He dropped 53 and then 41 points on Sam Jones as the Lakers went up 2-0 before losing in seven.
These scenes are foreign to Leonard and George, born decades after the fact. To them, West won championships with the Lakers … as the team architect. Today, he’s a valued member of the Clippers’ front office. Yet, there’s respect: When Kawhi and his uncle, Dennis Robertson, held a final meeting at Rivers’ home before signing, the only other person in the room was West.
When Leonard arrived in San Antonio in 2011, his rebounding appetite was apparent. (As you know, board man gets paid and all that.) His defense quickly rose to NBA level, which allowed him to carve a role in the rotation of a championship-caliber team.
Offensively, though, Kawhi needed polish. He shot just 25% on 3-pointers at San Diego State. He had little confidence in his range and zero experience in clutch situations because the Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili for that.
“But Kawhi just worked at it,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He wanted to be a complete player so he wasn’t satisfied. He put in the time on his shot and kept improving, and as we evolved as a team, he found himself with the ball.”
Leonard’s rep as an elite defender soared in the 2014 Finals when his claws on LeBron proved pivotal; in Game 3 for example, Kawhi outscored LeBron 29-22. But as Kawhi won back-to-back Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2015-16, his scoring improved enough to make him the featured option on the Spurs. He went from 7.9 ppg as a rookie to 25.5 ppg by his fifth season. After mastering the mid-range and post-up, Kawhi stretched his range to where he became comfortable from deep. In his playoff career, he’s 41.1% on 3-pointers.
“It’s all about working hard,” he said. “I always want to be the best player I can be.”
George’s offense developed in a similarly gradual fashion. He shot 29% from deep as a rookie. As he sharpened his shooting skills, the Pacers improved as a team, making return trips to the playoffs and briefly putting a chill into LeBron and the Heat. George’s scoring average improved six straight years (discounting his injury-interrupted 2014-15 season), and last season in Oklahoma City his 28-point average finished runner-up to James Harden for the scoring lead. Oh, and he made first team All-Defense by leading the league in steals.
“Offensively he had a long way to go as a rookie,” said Frank Vogel, George’s coach in Indiana at the time. “The shooting, the passing, the court awareness, he had a long way to grow. You can’t grow when you’re not playing. He had the ability to stay on the court defensively, and that’s what gave me the confidence to throw him out there and learn offensively.”
George and Kawhi are aligned defensively. They anticipate steals, provide help, cover in the open floor and play tight on the perimeter without fear of being beaten off the dribble because of their quick ability to recover. There’s always an interested spectator seated behind the home basket at Staples Center who studies them.
“They have magnificent intuition, great hands, anticipation and strength,” West said. “They have all the things that are necessary to succeed.
“Look at Kawhi: Playing down in San Antonio was a good learning experience and he built on that. He had the instincts to do it right away. You watch him and Paul out there and you say, ‘Oh my God, how are you gonna get around these guys with the length they have?’ They cut the angles on passing. Watching those guys play the angles is something else.”
George said he’s all ears whenever West offers advice, because game recognizes game.
“He showed me something I hadn’t thought about, how I go about attacking,” George said. “It was with my lead foot. I’m accustomed to having my feet a certain way. He says to angle it towards the basket so I’m always leaning toward the basket. Just some small detail stuff that he’s able to see because of who he is and what he did. If there’s small things he thinks I can work on, believe me, I’m working on it the next day.”
As the Clippers navigate this ambitious season, they’ll need everything on both ends from their pair of elite two-ways.
Well, check that.
“I’m glad we got all three,” Rivers said.
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