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Jerry West Is Climbing a New Hill

In moving to the Clippers, the Logo is leaving a perfect basketball situation to try to fix a flawed one

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Earlier this week, ESPN ran its long-awaited Celtics-Lakers 30 for 30 documentary Best of Enemies. In the first of the film’s three parts, Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum described then-Laker Jerry West in the 1960s as "Sisyphus" who "pushed that rock up the hill all the time against the Celtics, got near the top, and that rock just tumbled back down." West lost to the Celtics in the Finals six times during the ’60s.

One could make the case that this generation’s Sisyphus is the Los Angeles Clippers — a franchise not exactly fighting against a specific team, but rather its own history, one marred by a seeming inability to succeed and without a conference championship berth.

Now, the two parties will unite in an effort to get over that hill, as McCallum reported late Wednesday night that West will leave his advisory role with Golden State to join the Clippers as a consultant. The former Lakers star and two-time NBA champion with the Warriors is now a member of the Clippers front office. Welcome to 2017.

Here are four ways in which West’s hiring may affect the Clippers both now and in the future.

The Free-Agency Ripple

One of the biggest immediate problems the Clippers have this summer is their lack of flexibility. They can re-sign Blake Griffin and Chris Paul to hefty contracts and give their core more opportunities together, though that action could well prove futile and would financially burden the franchise well into the next decade. Could West instead advise against bringing one or even both All-Stars back?

For the past six seasons, West has been with a franchise that has benefited from drafting well. Between Klay Thompson (West reportedly threatened to quit if they traded Klay for Kevin Love), Draymond Green and more recently, Patrick McCaw — all of whom the Warriors acquired under West’s guidance — it is clear the Logo’s best asset is his talent evaluation. He’s seen how a good or lucky draft pick can lead to success in free agency, too.

Building a team via the draft is a concept so foreign to the Clippers that their lack of picks in this year’s edition is not much of a surprise. With three high-paid stars that won’t be good enough to beat his former team, it wouldn’t be out of the question for West to suggest a radical approach to fixing the Clippers: bottoming out. The team could benefit from trading a good, but maybe not good enough DeAndre Jordan and pushing both Griffin and Paul to sign with other teams or attempting a late effort at concocting sign-and-trade deals for them, and then filling the resulting cap space with younger players.

Upheaval doesn’t feel like the most plausible course of action, since West is merely a consultant, but his hiring does suggest the Clippers are ripe for some savvy advice regarding their upcoming crucial decisions. And they need it. Unless West and Co. do some Home Makeover–type remodeling on the franchise, there’s no clear pathway to getting remarkably better in 2017-18. West will have suggestions that may or may not work; what may be most important, however, is what the Clippers do with them.

The LeBron Wrinkle

It was only a matter of time before LeBron James’s decisions would become a topic of debate once again. Recent reports indicate the King may want a warmer throne. This time, not in South Beach, but in L.A.

West’s a Hall of Famer that current stars respect. He’s also a Hall of Famer that respects the stars of the day, a modus operandi that runs counter to the recurring "back in my day" commentary that is repeatedly spouted by past greats. West has staunchly defended LeBron for his Finals record, the inordinate amount of criticism thrown his way, and the public’s depreciation of his abilities.

There’s no doubt the Clippers are aware of the rumors regarding LeBron, whose only goal at this point is trying to usurp the Warriors once again. There’s not a direct correlation between the hiring of West and the sudden idea that signing LeBron could be possible in the future, but this move certainly advances the Clippers’ position in the hypothetical sweepstakes.

The Ballmer Power Move

If there’s a clear takeaway from the hiring of West, it’s that Steve Ballmer, after three years of owning the franchise, may finally be asserting his entrepreneurial approach. In one day, Ballmer hijacked the NBA news cycle with the news of West’s hiring plus the announcement that the Clippers are set to build a brand-new arena in Inglewood that he will fully finance (shouts to you, Steve, the real Big Baller), freeing themselves from their current role as little brother to the Lakers in the Staples Center.

By hiring West, Ballmer undoubtedly adds what the franchise may truly need: a fresh pair of eyes. Though West will likely be an extension of the front office, not lord above it, if this gig is anything like his Warriors job — where he reported directly to owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, not GM Bob Myers — his direct connection to Ballmer could cast a shadow over other front-office members like executive VP of basketball ops Lawrence Frank and GM Dave Wohl.

This doesn’t seem to be Ballmer finally beginning to meddle in Vivek fashion; it appears to be more of him employing an entrepreneurial mindset of self-delegating and empowering smarter people to do the job of fixing his franchise for him. That he was able to steal West away from the Warriors is a coup at a crucial time for the franchise. It could also be a sign of a new era in which Ballmer takes matters into his own hands as he prepares for a hopeful future while dealing with the murky present.

The Doc Question

Reports indicate that both Ballmer and Doc Rivers met with West in trying to coax him to join them in L.A., which would suggest that Doc is part of the plan, not a casualty of a coming overhaul, as rumors have suggested. As president of basketball ops, Doc has been exposed as a coach who can’t moonlight as a player-personnel executive, which has made the Clippers give him as much help as possible without taking his title. West adds another player into the front-office mix, one whose voice inherently carries more gravitas, and one who may attract other voices — such as his own son, Ryan, the Lakers’ director of player personnel — to the Clippers.

Though he still retains the president tag, the looming presence of West could mean Doc’s front-office role may be diminishing even further. Given Doc’s track record at that position, that may be the best thing that could happen to the Clippers going forward.

West’s blood type is A-competitive. At 79, he’s reportedly moving to L.A. because he wants a new challenge, another hard-fought journey to fuel him and temporarily slake his ever-burning flame. In the Clippers, West has his work more than cut out for him. But this is what West thrives on. He’s leaving one of the best situations in the history of the league for the challenge of trying to overcome the hill Sisyphus never could. In the Clippers, West may be facing his steepest challenge yet.