I remember the first time I ran into Jerry West at a Clipper game this year. This was my first season covering the NBA, so seeing and talking to players was still a novelty, but nothing overwhelming. Seeing Jerry West, though, that was something else. I froze as I was walking towards the elevator and stared at him with my mouth agape, and he kindly chuckled and smiled at me before heading in the other direction.
No one else has stunned me to that extent. But no one else in the league even comes close to having the gravitas of Jerry West.
As a player, he earned the nickname Mr. Clutch despite the fact that he only won one title. The NBA designed its logo on his likeness. And then he topped that off by having arguably the most illustrious front office career of all time. West has had the Midas touch as a basketball executive everywhere he has gone.
West won three titles as the GM of the Lakers, making moves like drafting James Worthy and trading Norm Nixon for Byron Scott, before being promoted to executive VP of Basketball Operations. The next summer, he cleared cap space and convinced Shaquille O’Neal to come to Los Angeles, and at the same time targeted Kobe Bryant out of high school to be the Robin to Shaq’s Batman.
He left the Lakers in 2000 after the team won its first title of the three-peat, though West’s fingerprints are all over the next two rings as well. Then he went to Memphis in 2002 and built another force in the Western Conference, helping the Grizzlies advance to the postseason three times in his five years.
In 2011, West joined the Warriors. He famously opposed trading Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love in 2014, helping to save the Splash Brothers, after lobbying to draft Thompson in 2011. West is also widely credited with helping seal the deal with Kevin Durant in free agency in 2016. Back-to-back titles ensued.
When he came to the Clippers as a consultant in 2017, West continued to bring the magic in Los Angeles. The bold moves that the front office has made in the last two seasons are definitely not solely attributable to West, but it can’t be a coincidence that he’s been present for one of the more rapid turnarounds in league history. The Clippers never had flexibility to build around their big three during the Lob City era, but somehow lost Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Chris Paul and built a super team one year after Jordan’s departure.
The Clippers reeled in the biggest prize in free agency, and yes I’m using a fishing metaphor because the bait was none other than Paul George. It is difficult to determine from our vantage how much credit to ascribe to West over Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger, Doc Rivers, or numerous other people who populate this world-class staff. But when Montrezl Harrell puts this out there, I have to believe that Jerry West had his hands in this process:
Mr.Logo, Mr.Jerry West you different in that office— Montrezl Harrell (@MONSTATREZZ) July 6, 2019
Once the regular season ended, teams around the league tried to poach Clippers executives for promotions. One by one, they all said no because there was belief that the Clippers were building something special here. Lou Williams stayed on a bargain extension last February and set the tone in the locker room, day in and day out. Winger turned down Minnesota. Trent Redden turned down New Orleans. Rivers theoretically turned down the Lakers.
And Jerry West, 81 years young, turned down retirement and embraced the challenge of building another contender. Who knew it would happen this quickly.
A popular discussion in the past few weeks has been what path the Clippers would pursue if they didn’t manage to sign Leonard. Even though the team had emerged as the favorites to sign the 2019 NBA Finals MVP, there had to be a backup plan.
Every single reporter and newsbreaker was certain that the Clippers would not overreact. They could run back last year’s team, develop their young players, and not worry about winning a press conference with a splashy, overrated signing. The infrastructure in place in this front office was too good to be thrown off by one player deciding not play for them.
This is the culture that the Clippers have created in Los Angeles, the aura that Jerry West brought with him. The Clippers would be calm. No matter what happened with Leonard, there was no need to panic.
Well, the rest of the league needs to panic now that the Clippers are a juggernaut. The Logo has triumphed again.