The Los Angeles Clippers turned the basketball world on its head in a matter of minutes in signing Kawhi Leonard and then trading for Paul George. By acquiring two superstars in one night, they have become one of the favorites for the 2019 crown.
But getting to this point didn’t happen overnight. This has been a two-year journey for the Clippers since they dismantled the “Lob City” team led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. In those two years, they established the culture and built up the necessary trade assets to get both Leonard and George in LA.
Here are the nine moves that helped the Clippers get to this exact moment:
1. Promoted Lawrence Frank to GM
Frank joined the Clippers in September 2014 after a tumultuous time with the Brooklyn Nets that saw him hired as Jason Kidd’s lead assistant and then re-assigned to do game reports two months later. He worked as an assistant coach under Doc Rivers for two seasons, but then he was moved into a front office role, getting promoted to the vice president of basketball operations in the summer of 2016.
In essence, he replaced Rivers, who was serving as a dual coach/team president. The change allowed Rivers to focus only on coaching the team, rather than have his attention divided between two difficult roles. “There are different relationships that a player needs to have with the coach and the front office,” owner Steve Ballmer said when announcing the moves.
Since then, Frank has been a crucial part of the Clippers’ transactions in the past couple of years, finishing third in the voting for the 2018-19 Executive Of The Year award.
2. Hired Jerry West (and beefed up the front office)
West was hired away from the Warriors as a consultant after Golden State’s second title. Getting the Logo himself to come was a big accomplishment. West was a two-time Executive of the Year and was very influential in his past two positions with the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers hired West to be their general manager in 1982, and he played an instrumental role in building four of the five championship teams in the ‘80s. West is also credited for trading for Kobe Bryant in the 1996 NBA Draft. According to an article by Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, West saw Bryant’s pre-draft workout and said, “Best workout I’ve ever seen. He’s better than anybody we have on the team right now.”
West has been a pivotal figure in convincing superstar free agents to join his teams, shifting the landscape of the NBA in the process. Most recently, he played a key role in the recruiting efforts to get Kevin Durant to join the Warriors in 2016. West also got Shaquille O’Neal to sign with Los Angeles in 1996. pitching the allure of the franchise to the center in addition to making the necessary moves to clear cap space.
The Clippers also made additional moves to build one of the biggest front-office staffs in the game. They hired Oklahoma City executive Michael Winger to be their general manager. Then, a few days later, former Cavaliers executive Trent Reddon was brought on to be their assistant GM. The following year, the Clippers hired Lee Jenkins from Sports Illustrated to be their executive director of research and identity.
3. The Chris Paul trade
After another loss in the 2017 playoffs, Paul decided he wanted to go to the Houston Rockets and join another superstar in James Harden. Houston didn’t have cap space to land him, so rather than opting out of the final year of his contract to become a free agent. Paul opted in to facilitate a trade.
Los Angles acquired seven players, a first-round pick, and cash for Paul, but the three cornerstones were Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell. They are tough and gritty players who have become valuable parts of the Clippers’ DNA.
Instead of losing Paul for nothing, the Clippers got three key players that made them an attractive destination for George and Leonard.
4. Turning Jamal Crawford into Danilo Gallinari
The Paul trade was most significant, but LA made another key move that summer to turn a player who wanted to leave into a valuable piece. LA traded sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, center Diamond Stone, and the first-round pick they got from Houston in the Paul trade to the Atlanta Hawks as part of a three-team deal that landed them Danilo Gallinari. Gallinari became the team’s top offensive option last year and was a key part of the Paul George trade.
5. Re-signed Blake Griffin — and almost immediately traded him
When Blake Griffin was a free agent in the summer of 2017, he was greeted by an elaborate pitch by the Clippers’ front office. They called him “a Clipper for life,” and even did a mock jersey retirement with his name hanging in the Staples Center rafters. It made a huge impression on Griffin, as he signed a five year $173 million deal shortly thereafter.
But just six months later, the “Clipper for life” was no longer a Clipper. With the team mired in mediocrity, the Clippers traded Griffin to the Detroit Pistons, getting multiple players and draft picks back that were then cashed in for more assets.
The full trade was Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Detroit’s 2018 first-rounder, and a 2019 second-round pick. Harris and the first-rounder proved to be the most important ones.
6. Moved up to draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Both the Pistons and Clippers just missed the playoffs, so LA had the No. 12 and No. 13 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. That extra pick proved essential when the Clippers traded away the No. 12 pick and a second-rounder to the Charlotte Hornets to move up one spot and draft Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
At 6’6 with a 6’11 wingspan, Gilgeous-Alexander made an immediate impact as a rookie, with his size making him an excellent fit alongside Beverley or Williams. He was one of the top rookies in the league last season, and given his age and contract, his value was tremendously high going into the offseason. His presence helped further tip the scales in the blockbuster deal for George.
7. The surprising Tobias Harris trade
Three days before last season’s trade deadline, Harris hit a game-winner to beat the Charlotte Hornets and move the Clippers into sole possession of eighth place in the West. Hours later, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Clippers took advantage of the Sixers making a home run swing for the Eastern Conference crown to extract maximum value for Harris. LA received the Sixers’ first rounder in 2020, an unprotected 2021 first-round pick via the Miami Heat, and two second-round selections. In addition, they got sharp-shooting rookie guard Landry Shamet, who eventually moved into the starting lineup.
The move was surprising given that it appeared the Clippers were punting on a playoff run, but it set them up nicely for the future by adding more draft picks to their treasure chest of assets.
8. Got Maurice Harkless and another first-rounder
When free agency, the Clippers got themselves involved in a superstar deal, but not for themselves. Instead, they inserted themselves into the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade, using remaining cap space to help the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers complete a complicated transaction. As part of a four-team trade, the Clippers walked away with Maurice Harkless, plus another first-rounder from Miami for their troubles.
Harkless is an expiring contract of $11M that will provide frontcourt depth this season. Meanwhile, the extra draft pick proved essential in ...
9. Traded everything for Paul George
After spending nearly two years wheeling and dealing to acquire pieces, the Clippers finally went all in and swiped George from Oklahoma City. And they needed almost all the pieces they slowly stockpiled to make it happen.
George quietly requested a trade to team with Leonard, but it would take a massive haul to get him away from the Thunder. Thanks to their hard work over the last two years, the Clippers were in position to pull this off.
In the end, the Clippers sent five draft picks, two pick swaps, and two players in Gallinari and Gilgeous-Alexander to get George, and thus also secure Leonard’s signature. Three of those five picks and the two pick swaps came from the Clippers themselves, but every other piece came from transactions the Clippers conducted to remake their team in the post Lob City era.
Taking apart a winning core in Lob City was not easy considering the Clippers’ morbid history. Having to say goodbye to one of the greatest point guards in NBA history in Paul and a beloved superstar in Griffin was difficult, and trading Harris in the middle of a playoff run was bold.
But in the end, those moves, along with several others, enabled the Clippers to become the NBA’s newest superteam and be one of the top contenders to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy next season.