The Clippers were one of the big winners of the 2019 offseason, landing the top free agent on the market in Kawhi Leonard and trading for MVP finalist Paul George in perhaps the most shocking deal of the summer.
While the Clippers can look back fondly now on a first week of July that culminated with the club reaching agreements to acquire both stars, head coach Doc Rivers admits to Arash Markazi of The Los Angeles Times that it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride at the time.
According to Rivers, on Friday, July 5 at noon, it looked like the Clippers wouldn’t be able to pry George away from the Thunder. Failing to complete that deal was expected to result in Leonard signing with the Lakers or returning to the Raptors, and Rivers was particularly dismayed at the idea of Kawhi joining the Lakers, telling Clippers owner Steve Ballmer that they couldn’t allow that to happen.
“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle,” Rivers told Markazi. “It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”
Less than 12 hours later, the deal with Oklahoma City was back on and the Clippers had secured a commitment from Leonard, shaking up the NBA world and putting Rivers in position to coach two of the game’s top players.
In his conversation with Markazi, Rivers offered a few more entertaining tidbits about the Clippers’ pursuit of Leonard and their trade for George. Here are a few of the highlights from the veteran head coach:
On the Clippers’ subtle, season-long recruitment of Leonard in 2018/19:
“I got a lot of credit, and so did [special consultant] Jerry West, but the guy that was the hero in all this was [president of basketball operations] Lawrence Frank. He did all the work. He had Steve Ballmer going to Raptors games and he went to some, too. We were warned that no more Clippers players, coaches or employees could go to games in Toronto. We were sending guys to go sit the stands.
“There was nothing wrong with what we were doing, but Steve Ballmer sitting courtside in Toronto seemed a little strange. But we didn’t say a word. We just wanted [Leonard] to know we were there and we were interested.”
On Leonard essentially giving the Clippers an ultimatum:
“He said, ‘I want to play for you,’ and he pointed at me. He said, ‘Mr. Ballmer, I love the things you do and what you stand for, but your team is not good enough and if you don’t change your team, I’m not coming.'”
On how Leonard zeroed in on Paul George as a potential teammate:
“We actually had a list of guys, which was a mistake, but we got lucky. We shouldn’t have had a list, because then he got to choose who he wanted to play with and the assumption was that we could get them. We didn’t know if we could get anybody. We just showed him guys that we thought would match him and when he saw Paul George’s name he said, ‘I want to play with him.’ We showed him everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George, so after the meeting we sat down and I said, ‘We got to get Paul George. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but we have to do it.'”
On sending a massive haul of draft picks to the Thunder for George:
“Steve Ballmer was nervous about the picks. I said, ‘Steve, you keep saying six picks for Paul George is insane, but you’re saying it wrong. It’s not six for Paul; it’s six for Paul and Kawhi. So three for each. I would do that.’ You have to look at it in those terms.”