Jerry West never really left Los Angeles.
All through those six years as an executive board member for the Golden State Warriors, the 79-year-old stayed in his Bel Air home and made the short flight up the coast when those times came for in-person visits. But this Clippers gig that was formally announced on Monday, with West hired as a consultant to help take this underachieving team to new heights, is something altogether different.
Not since his Lakers days have the personal and professional lives meshed together this nicely.
The grand plan now for West and his new Clippers colleagues, president of basketball operations and head coach Doc Rivers and executive vice president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank? Targeting the biggest fish in next summer's free agent sea: LeBron James.
According to two people with knowledge of the situation, West’s potential ability to improve the Clippers’ chances of landing the Cleveland Cavaliers star in free agency in the summer of 2018 was a significant factor in his hiring and in the willingness of owner Steve Ballmer to pay West between $4 and $5 million annually. The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the team’s plans.
There’s all kinds of work to do before then, like re-signing James’ close friend/Clippers point guard Chris Paul this summer (which is still believed to be likely) and convincing five-time All-Star forward Blake Griffin to come back too (which is considered more dicey). There’s the Carmelo Anthony situation that hasn’t gone anywhere over these past few months. A scenario remains possible where J.J. Redick, via a sign-and-trade, would be sent along with another Clippers player to the Knicks in exchange for Anthony, who is also close friends with James and Paul.
But James, who has a home and an increasing amount of off-court business in Los Angeles, is at the center of the Clippers’ dreams. And West, as the Clippers see it, is the perfect recruiter to lure James away from his home state.
Despite an age gap of nearly half a century, James and West have built a connection over the years based largely on their shared experiences. West was an all-time great player – ‘The Logo,’ as he is known – but admits to this day that his 1-8 record in the Finals haunts him. James, whose Cavs fell to the Warriors last week amid debates about whether he might be the greatest player of all time, is 3-5 in the Finals.
When James made the controversial 2010 move to leave Cleveland and sign in Miami, he called West in confidence to discuss his choice. When James was making his way to a sixth consecutive Finals appearance in 2016, he was reading West’s autobiography, West by West – for a third time.
As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin wrote during those 2016 Finals, when West defended James and his record so vehemently after the Cavs fell down 3-1 in the series they would ultimately win, “James has a personal nickname for West: The Godfather.”
And what a Godfather move this would be.
The rumblings have grown louder in recent weeks that James might not be long for Cleveland, in part because he has already achieved what he went back home to do (win the franchise’s first title) and also because of the growing entertainment and media business he has in Los Angeles.
The Warriors’ signing of Kevin Durant last summer and their return to the NBA's mountaintop last week has changed the landscape for the Cavs, too, as it was clear in their latest faceoff with Golden State that the core of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love isn’t good enough to get that job done. Add in the chaos of the Cavs’ front office situation – general manager David Griffin and the Cavs are parting ways, the team announced on Monday – and the climate is ripe for James’ frustration to grow. Yet while the focus is often on the Lakers as a possible landing spot, it’s the Clippers who find themselves much closer to title contention and, in turn, as a more viable option for James.
West has a new basketball home now, not far from the one where he has lived with his wife, Karen, for almost four decades now. Only time will tell if James wants to join him.