Earlier this month, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers went on TV and sort of implied that his organization knew it was in trouble if the Los Angeles Lakers had signed Kawhi Leonard, saying that it would have been “tough to be in L.A.” for the Clippers.
In a sitdown with Arash Markazi of The L.A. Times, Rivers was much more explicit regarding just how worried the Clippers were about such a possibility (emphasis mine):
“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’
“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”
The thing is, as I wrote earlier this week, Rivers isn’t wrong. The Lakers adding Leonard to a team that already boasted Anthony Davis and LeBron James would have obliterated any momentum the Clippers were building in Los Angeles. No matter how scrappy, hard-working or over-achieving their roster was, there would have been no competing with a Lakers team with that much star power in the same city.
Not even in the eyes of Leonard (again, via Markazi):
“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.’ ”
“Steve Ballmer was nervous about the picks,” Rivers said. “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.”
Okay, can we pause for a second and acknowledge how unintentionally funny it is that in the Clippers’ quest to brag about how hard they had to work to get Leonard, they accidentally revealed that he low-key called their roster trash without Paul George AND let slip what their owner doesn’t think Paul George is worth? Come on, no matter how the summer turned out, that’s hilarious.
But back to the point at hand: Would Leonard choosing the Lakers have actually necessitated a move to Seattle for L.A.’s less beloved team? As happy as Lakers fans would be about that, probably not. Leonard picking the purple and gold would have made the Clippers mostly irrelevant in their own city for the next few years, but once they complete their planned move to their proposed building in Inglewood, they likely would have been able to capture some fans they hadn’t before while right under the shadow of their big brother franchise.
Ballmer also could have still kept going on one part of the plan they’re executing now — making historic contributions to the community to slowly win over the city’s youth. That wouldn’t have gotten as much buzz without Leonard and George in tow, but still could have won over some members of the city.
Again, none of this is to say that the Clippers would have or will beat out the Lakers for Los Angeles supremacy in the minds of fans. With or without Leonard, that is likely never on the table given how the water supply in Southern California practically runs purple and gold. All I’m saying is that they were profitable enough to be worth $2 billion in L.A., and due to the value of TV rights, the fact that they’ve been planning to build a new arena for some time and other factors, it’s just unlikely they would have moved to Seattle.
Still, Rivers’ panic illustrates just how little margin for error the Clippers have in L.A., to the point that their coach at least briefly considered the possibility that they’d have to move if they couldn’t sign one of the best players in the NBA. Those are incredibly high stakes, and demonstrate just how much ground they have to make up in the hearts and minds of the city, even if they’ve seemingly caught up on the court.