Column: A behind the scenes look at how the Clippers won Kawhi Leonard and Paul George

Clippers owner Steve Balmer with new players Paul George, center, and Kawhi Leonard at Green Meadows Recreation Center in Los Angeles in July.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Doc Rivers smiled as he sipped on a diet soda Monday night near a golf course in Los Angeles.

“I have my first official dinner with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard tonight,” he said, still giddy that the Clippers were able to land two of the best players in the NBA over the summer.

Before Rivers left to meet his newest stars, he spoke to a small group of people brought together by the Westcoast Sports Associates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving economically disadvantaged children in Southern California the opportunity to participate in sports.


As guests enjoyed cocktails, the Clippers coach laughed and said he was done drinking for a while after watching his daughter, Callie, get married to Dallas Mavericks guard Seth Curry last weekend in Malibu.

“It was very expensive,” he said. “I have to be the first coach to ever throw a wedding for an NBA player. Like, I don’t get that. I don’t think I should have paid. I really don’t. But it was fantastic.”

Seeking to call Inglewood home, the Clippers have proposed committing an estimated $100 million in benefits toward the city as part of building an arena.

Sept. 10, 2019

Rivers has had plenty to celebrate in the last couple of months after landing Leonard and George, making the Clippers one of the favorites to win the NBA championship this season. It was a haul that was a year in the making, with the Clippers not-so-discreetly trying to get the attention of Leonard last season while he was playing for the Toronto Raptors. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer; Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations; and other team representatives occasionally made appearances in the crowd for games at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

“I got a lot of credit, and so did Jerry West, but the guy that was the hero in all this was Lawrence Frank,” Rivers said. “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 in 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.”

The Clippers had been optimistic about their chances to land Leonard, but when the Raptors won the NBA championship and the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis, pairing him with LeBron James, and then opened up a third max-salary slot, there was a feeling the Moreno Valley native could sign elsewhere.

“We had a meeting with Kawhi at my house in Malibu and we felt we had the inside position,” Rivers said. “The Lakers had a meeting with Kawhi and they built this whole thing up for him to come to their new practice facility and he said, ‘No, you can come to my hotel room.’ But with us he said, ‘Yes, I’ll come to your house.’ When we heard that it felt like he was telling us he wants to come here.”

As much as Rivers coveted Leonard — the coach was fined $50,000 for saying on ESPN, “Kawhi is the most like Jordan we’ve seen” — he didn’t know much about him. That first meeting at Rivers’ home was their first conversation.

“I actually tried to speak to him last season a couple times as he was walking by and you get nothing out of him. Nothing,” Rivers said. “He comes into this meeting and he shakes our hands and he’s talking. We were prepared for a meeting where we would have to drag things out of him. Instead, he’s the one talking and finally he tells us exactly what the deal is.


“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.’ ”

It was a franchise-altering case of good news and bad news: Leonard wanted to be a Clipper but wouldn’t make the jump unless the team was able to get him a running mate to make them championship contenders.

“We actually had a list of guys, which was a mistake, but we got lucky,” Rivers said. “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.’

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is among the many top players who chose not to play for Team USA, which exited the FIBA World Cup on Wednesday without a medal.

Sept. 11, 2019

“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.’ 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.”

In exchange for George, the Clippers sent Oklahoma City unprotected first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 along with Miami’s first-round picks in 2021 and 2023. They also agreed to pick swaps in 2023 and 2025 and threw in former first-round picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.

“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.”

Even with that record number of draft picks, the Thunder originally said no, which meant the Clippers were not only going to lose George but also miss out on Leonard.

While seeing Leonard potentially return to Toronto would be tough, what Rivers really couldn’t stomach was the idea of Leonard signing with the Lakers. As hard as the Clippers had worked to gain respectability in the city, losing Leonard to the Lakers would likely have been a knockout blow.

“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 trade was back on at 4 p.m. before dying again at 5 p.m., and by 6 p.m. the Clippers had essentially moved on, believing they had exhausted every possible trade scenario. Rivers decided to take in the bad news by having a sunset dinner in Malibu with some friends.

“So I’m pulling into the parking lot and the phone rings and it’s Lawrence and he said, ‘Where are you?’ ” Rivers recalled. “I said, ‘I’m walking into Nobu.’ He said, ‘They have terrible reception there! Get out of there! Go somewhere with better reception. The deal is back on!’

“So I go to the side of the road on PCH and we’re going back and forth and we got the deal done. I walked back into Nobu with a whole different attitude. Our waiter was a Lakers fan and the news hadn’t broken yet but I knew. He kept telling me, ‘We’re going to get Kawhi’ and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know about that.’ ”

As great as the summer was for Rivers and the Clippers, he knows it won’t mean much if they’re not playing basketball when next summer rolls around.

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