All Ball: Clippers curse continues

by Paul Teetor

Clippers President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank has to be the luckiest man in all of LA sports.

The Lakers have been such a mess for the last few months – getting crushed in the first round of the playoffs, hiring a coach who has never coached, drafting LeBron James’ eminently unqualified son and handing him a 4-year, $8 million contact – that it has crowded out everything else going on in LA Sports.

But now the smoke from the Lakers dumpster fire has cleared and we can see the Clippers problems more clearly. One thing about the Clippers’ failed past and dubious future stands out above all their other problems: the all-in Kawhi Leonard — Paul George experiment is officially an epic failure.

That became obvious Saturday when George signed a 4-year, $212 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia 76ers rather than accept the Clippers offer of 3 years and $152 million — the same deal they gave to Kawhi a few months ago. 

So, the Clippers lost their second-best player for nothing: no draft picks, no lesser players coming back to LA to balance out the massive contract, no sign-and-trade transaction that would at least allow the Clippers to salvage something from their massive investment in George.

No, this was an increasingly rare unrestricted free agent signing. 

And it was a gut punch to the Clippers.

But even more than that it finally turned the spotlight on Frank and his failed vision for the Clippers future as they prepare to move into the $2 billion Intuit Dome in Inglewood next fall. It’s time for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer – the $133 billion man – to do more than just be the number one fan and lead the cheers at home games.

It’s past time for him to ask Frank some tough questions and replace him if he doesn’t have the right answers. That’s what Ballmer would have done at Microsoft and it’s time to do it here in LaLa Land.

To understand just how devastating losing George is you have to go back to July 24, 2019. That was the bright, sunny summer day the Clippers held a joyful news conference to announce the signing of Kawhi and Paul George, two of the best two-way players in the NBA. Both of them are great defenders and prolific scorers – when healthy.

The addition of the two star players made the Clippers an instant title contender for the foreseeable future. Frank could barely contain his excitement.

But as the media dug into the backstory of how these two stars got to LA, the inflated price the Clippers had paid for them started to raise questions about how smart the acquisitions really were.

Start with this: Kawhi was the prize free agent on the market that summer, and early reports said he was likely going to join LeBron James on the Lakers, making them an instant title contender after the Lakers missed the playoffs in LeBron’s first season. It all made sense because Kawhi is from Riverside and wanted to be close to his family after spending his first seven years in the league in San Antonio and then one year in Toronto, where he led the Raptors to their one and only NBA title.

Everybody knew he wasn’t going to re-sign with Toronto, and that he was going home to SoCal. So the Lakers made perfect sense for him, LeBron was recruiting him hard, and it seemed like a done deal – until the Clippers got involved, figuring he might be more comfortable as a lead dog for them rather than as a sidekick to LeBron on the Lakers.

Kawhi – who says as little as possible publicly – was playing a two-way game behind the scenes. He continued to flirt with the Lakers, but meanwhile he was telling the Clippers that he would sign with them on one condition: that they go out and get a superstar to be his wingman. And, oh yeah, he knew just the guy he wanted by his side: Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

So Frank called the Thunder to inquire what it would take to get George. OKC General Manager Sam Presti is one of the savviest basketball guys out there, a smart guy who recognized that he now had all the leverage with the Clippers. Plus, he knew that George, while a legitimate All Star and a nice player by any measure, wasn’t really a superstar on the same level as Kawhi or LeBron.

So he said no deal. Thanks for reaching out to us but no thanks. 

When Franks told Kawhi he couldn’t make a deal for Paul George, Kawhi dug his heels in and said well, then, he would sign with the Lakers.

Now Franks was truly frantic to trade for George, and basically said: whatever it takes, we’ll do it.

OK, the Thunder said, like a fat man sitting down at an all you can eat buffet: Let’s start with your prize rookie, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or SGA as he is better known. A member of the All-Rookie team, the 6-foot-6 guard had shown enormous potential in his rookie season with the Clippers, but Frank was more than willing to part with him.

Then OKC wanted five first round draft picks – essentially the Clippers future well into the next decade – plus two pick swaps. That means in two different years when the Thunder weren’t automatically taking the Clippers draft pick, they would have the right to exchange picks with the Clippers if the Clippers pick was better.

It was one of the biggest trade hauls in NBA history and gave Ballmer credit for balking at paying such a steep price. He attended every home game, and he had seen for himself just how promising SGA was. But Frank – and other Clippers execs – kept making the same point over and over: we’re not just trading for Paul George. We’re trading for Kawhi too. If we get PG, we get Kawhi too. So we have to make the deal.   

Ballmer caved in to his “knowledgeable basketball people” and the Clippers fate was sealed.        

In the five years since then, Kawhi played less than half the team’s game and George missed 40 percent of them. The Clippers made it to one Western Conference Finals, but otherwise did nothing.

Meanwhile, SGA became the second-best player in the league – he finished second in the MVP voting this year – and the Thunder used all those Clippers draft picks to re-build. They won the Western Conference this year and are poised to be title contenders for years to come – thanks to Lawrence Franks.

Asked this week after George announced his signing with the 76ers if he would make the trade with OKC again, Frank said of course he would.

The deal was bad enough. But that statement – that he would do the trade all over again – is reason enough for Ballmer to fire him.

That’s what he would have done at Microsoft.



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