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Rivers knew the risks, but the Clippers took a shot and won Leonard at the end

Los Angeles Clippers

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The NBA’s Board of Governors was meeting in New York on Friday and one the most important issues on its docket was deciding what if anything to do about the league’s big problem with tampering.

Too many teams have figured out how to circumvent admittedly archaic rules dealing with when and how free agents can be courted. These clear violations eventually led to the signing of such marquee stars as Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant within hours of the beginning of free agency on June 30.

The Los Angeles Clippers apparently played by the rules when they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George. But the circumstances that led to each winding up in the lap of Clippers coach Doc Rivers are nonetheless fascinating.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times published a wide-ranging interview with Rivers in which he detailed the events that landed two of the NBA’s biggest stars in his lap.

Rivers began by admitting Los Angeles knew the Oklahoma Thunder was interested in blowing up its roster after being eliminated in the playoffs in the first round for the third straight season.

Los Angeles had also invested a lot of time trying to convince Leonard of their interest. On a number of occasions last season, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and Lawrence Frank, their president of basketball operations, would stop by Toronto to show Leonard how interested they were.

“There was nothing wrong with what we were doing, but Steve Ballmer sitting courtside in Toronto seemed a little strange,” said Rivers. “But we didn’t say a word. We just wanted [Leonard] to know we were there and we were interested.”

And when Leonard, then a free agent, finally accepted an invitation to Rivers’ house, he presented him a list of OKC’s players to choose from. George was on that list.

Here was the problem: The Clippers knew there was no clear way for them to actually acquire those players, despite giving Leonard the impression he could pick and choose those he wanted to be his teammates.

“Which was a mistake, but we got lucky,” Rivers told the Times. “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.'”

When Leonard mentioned George, it immediately put the Clippers into an uncomfortable situation. They were acutely aware that during the summer of 2018, the Thunder signed George to a four-year, $137 million extension. That seemed to communicate OKC’s desire to keep him at the core of any revamped roster.

When Leonard saw George’s name, he immediately became fixated. Nothing Rivers did was able to get him to shift his focus.

“We showed him everybody else and he didn’t want to hear it. He just stayed on Paul George,” said Rivers. “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.’ We did know that Oklahoma City wanted to break their team up, so that helped. But we didn’t know if we could get him.”

Los Angeles Clippers

(Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

Leonard was also very clear about what he wanted from the Clippers and on the top of that list was bringing more competitive players to the organization.

“Kawhi said, ‘I want to play for you.’ And he pointed at me,” Rivers told the Times. “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.'”

So the Clippers got to work. They contacted the Thunder and by July 5 were able to put together a deal attractive enough to get Leonard what he wanted.

The Clippers gave the Thunder four future unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps. They also tossed in former first-round picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.

Five days later, they announced the signing of Leonard.

“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,” said Rivers. “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.”

As it turned out, it was a gamble that richly compensated the Clippers. And they did it strictly by the rules.

“We won the summer, but we’re trying to win the season,” said Rivers. “Winning the summer is great, it allows you to win the season, but we’ve won nothing yet. Now the real work begins.”