Has Jerry West Left the Building?

When Jerry West was hired as an advisor to the Los Angels Clippers it was one of the biggest coups in Clippers history. The doormat of the Los Angeles sports scene had lured a legendary figure. They were entitled to boast. West is admired and revered. He is Lakers royalty and beloved in Los Angeles and his impact goes much deeper than his silhouette on the NBA logo. With the number one pick in the 1982 draft, West bypassed National Player of the Year Terry Cummings and drafted James Worthy. Worthy built a Hall of Fame career while Cummings played 18 years for 7 teams and had two All-Star appearances. A decade later, West willingly traded his All-Star center Vlade Divac for a seventeen-year-old. West made the deal for Shaquille O’Neal, even though the stress put him in the hospital. West supplemented extreme talent with quality role players like Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw.

When Jerry West was an advisor to the Golden State Warriors, he made a threat: trade Klay Thompson and I’ll quit. Thompson wasn’t traded. To say West is revered for his acumen, knowledge, patience, and scouting ability would be akin to saying the moon is round; tell me something I don’t know.

But as extraordinary a hire as it was for the Clippers, and as much as West was embraced in the Clippers organization, he alone could not erase Clippers history, specifically how certain Clippers failure(s) had Jerry West fingerprints all over them.

Take that James Worthy draft in 1982. Terry Cummings who West didn’t want was drafted by the Clippers with the number two pick. It was the kiss of death. Cummings had an average career. The Clippers weren’t insightful enough, didn’t say to themselves, well if Jerry passed on Cummings maybe we should too.

Two years later, the Clippers had the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. They selected Byron Scott. Scott was an Inglewood kid who played at Arizona State. He was quiet and resilient and could make contested shots. Scott was from a rough part of town and survived the detritus. He was mentally tough and his aspirations didn’t skew towards Scott wanting to be the leader. He wasn’t interested in taking away Magic Johnson’s shine.

The San Diego Clippers were a disaster from ownership on down in 1984 but no one in San Diego cared or paid attention. Clippers owner Donald Sterling got into the NBA business because one of his best friends asked him for some money. Jerry Buss needed additional cash to complete the Lakers sale from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979. Buss, in turn, convinced Sterling to buy the Clippers in 1981. Sterling soon learned that in the NBA, in the Western Conference, it was the Lakers world. They titled the axis. Sterling was desperate for attention, for love, and adoration and he was jealous. He wanted what the Lakers had.

What the Lakers had was a disgruntled player.

Back when Jerry West coached the Lakers in 1977, he had a rookie point guard named Norm Nixon. As a coach, West was hard as nails, intensely driven, dogmatic, relentless, the kind of leader that believed criticism was love. Strategically, that was the West identity: be hard on yourself, expect perfection from the world. What was problematic with this kind of survivorship psychology was that Norm Nixon was cut a little bit differently. He was notoriously thin-skinned and sensitive and was not used to the dismissive quick barbs West threw his way whenever Nixon made a mistake. Even for a rookie, Nixon had a healthy ego and was used to that ego being fed by admirers. But Jerry West didn’t cooperate in the fall of 1977.  He seemed to hate Norm Nixon.

You’re a whiner. You’re soft. You’re inexperienced. Being a Laker is too much for you.

Perhaps if Nixon was wired a little bit differently if he was more laid back and more secure in his own capabilities, he would have let it go but Nixon couldn’t let West get away with what felt like a public stoning. He returned fire in this very simmering and antagonistic war between player and coach.

When Magic Johnson joined the team two years later, Nixon had to make adjustments and room for the effervescent Johnson. However, Nixon didn’t take well to the adaptations.  Unhappy, as the years progressed, Nixon told Lon Rosen who was the Lakers Director of Promotions, “I don’t want to be here.” The stress of daily battles was getting to him, putting Nixon on edge.  His I don’t want to be here comment was said when Nixon was complaining, a frequent habit of his.  Did he really mean it? It didn’t much matter. Once Jerry West heard Nixon’s gripe, it set everything in motion.

It was October 15, 1983. Jerry West was no longer the Lakers coach. He was the Lakers General Manager. He knew what he had to do. Trade Norm Nixon to the Clippers. Get in return Byron Scott.

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The third game of Byron Scott’s rookie year the Clippers were on the schedule. The game was in San Diego. The Lakers expected a heavy Lakers crowd which was the norm. The two-hour drive wasn’t a deterrent to Lakers fans and their enthusiastic trolling of the Clippers made the night entertaining.

But this was a different kind of game. It was electric and anticipatory. The Clippers fans showed up.  Norm Nixon had been a Clipper for three weeks and San Diego was excited. The Clippers got a Laker. They stole their championship player. Michael Cooper had gotten over the shock of the trade.

“I really felt bad for Norm because nobody in their f**cking mind wanted to be a Clipper. But I also thought he was really stupid. It’s the classic curse of getting what you asked for. He’d complained a lot when he was with us. Well, congratulations. You’re a f**king San Diego Clipper.”

Nixon was iconic that night as if showing his former teammates and Jerry West they underestimated him. He had 25 points and 12 assists. The Clippers beat the Lakers 110-106 in a stunning defeat in front of a shocked Lakers crowd. Nixon took it as evidence the Clippers and the Lakers were equal. The Clippers had arrived. But Nixon was doing a little too much boasting and patting himself on the back. Although Nixon averaged 17 points and 11 assists that year, the role players were mediocre and Bill Walton was always injured. The Clippers won 30 games while the Lakers won 54 games. Byron Scott played 74 games, averaging 11 points, shooting 48%, and was in the NBA Finals, although the Lakers lost to the Celtics.
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Thirty-six years after Jerry West swapped a Clippers draft pick for a veteran player,  West joined the team he once manipulated. In a way it was unthinkable. But in a way, it was business as usual. Time has changed everything. The Clippers are not the same organization Donald Sterling used to own and run. Sterling is gone and Ballmer is calling the shots. The Lakers are not the same organization either. And so, when Jerry West entered Clipper-land, there was this intersectionality, an incestuous picking off of Lakers greats.

In the same way the Lakers needed Byron Scott, the Clippers thought they needed Jerry West. They were desperate for high IQ in the front office and a gifted talent evaluator and Jerry West gave them relevance. West once said, “For me, life is about passion. Life is about being around people you want to be around.”

To their credit, of which they owe a lot to Doc Rivers, the Clippers are not pathetic, and not persona non-grata in NBA circles. Their owner is the 7th richest man in the world. They have elite talent from which to build a successful playoff team. But mistakes, even with Jerry West on board, continue to haunt them with eerie efficiency. A year before they acquired Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers had two lottery picks. One of those picks was Miles Bridges who the Clippers traded for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The other pick, number 13, was a question mark and Steve Ballmer had his eye on a Seattle player.

His senior year Michael Porter Jr. was coached by former Portland Trailblazer Brandon Roy. He averaged 36 and 13 and never lost a game. Porter Jr. was a 5-star recruit and the number one high school player in the country. He was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game. Porter was going to stay close to Washington and attend the University of Washington but when Lorenzo Romar was fired, he went to Missouri where his father had been hired as an assistant coach. In the first game, Porter was injured and would need back surgery. It ended his number one pick of the NBA Draft dream.

The number one pick was Deandre Ayton. Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Trae Young rounded out the top 5. After Miles Bridges was picked at 12, it felt like Michael Porter Jr.’s turn. He was waiting for the Clippers. If they selected him, he could be the cornerstone for their franchise the way Blake Griffin once was. The Clippers had the time to allow Porter Jr. to heal. They weren’t contenders. They had no All-Stars. It was a perfect situation. But the Clippers passed on Porter Jr. for Jerome Robinson a guard out of Boston College.

Robinson played 33 games as a rookie. The Clippers traded him halfway into his second year, sending him to the Washington Wizards. This past season, Robinson averaged 4.5 ppg while Porter Jr. averaged 9.3 ppg. The bubble playoffs were when Porter Jr.’s career took off. He averaged 11.4 ppg and 6.7 rebounds. He was responsible for clutch shot-making when his team eliminated the Clippers from the playoffs.

The elephant in the room once the Clippers were eliminated by the Nuggets was what if? What if the Clippers had drafted Michael Porter Jr.? They wouldn’t have needed Paul George. Porter Jr.’s absence sent Steve Ballmer into a rage once the Clippers were suddenly and surprisingly on vacation.

Was not drafting Porter Jr. a Jerry West mistake?

Post-Doc Rivers West is under significant pressure to identify the best leader to go forward in this mess the Clippers have created. The Clippers traded everything to get Paul George and now have no one waiting in the wings for the future, no comparable Michael Porter Jr. to develop and no draft picks to use for leverage. Despite what Paul George says, the Clippers are desperate to win right now in a loaded Western Conference. Steve Ballmer is in a perpetual rage because this feels like the beginning of the end. At the very least more changes are coming.

The Clippers need Jerry West but they need the 1996 Jerry West who worked out a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant and then told Rick Pitino that Bryant was going to be one of the best players in NBA history. But the question remains. Has that Jerry West left the building? Has his usefulness passed him by? Are the West miracle years finally over?