A month before the start of the NBA season, the Los Angeles Clippers have decided to make one more addition to their team. In one of the most fascinating and confusing moves of the offseason, the Clippers have hired longtime Sports Illustrated feature writer Lee Jenkins to be their executive director of research and identity.
“Given Lee’s talent, knowledge, and credibility, we hope to blend his approach with our existing evaluation systems and highlight the personalities of our players,” Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said in a press release.
OK, where to start? First, the title: Does it feel like the Clippers just rummaged around in a bag of generic executive buzzwords and picked a few at random? Yes. Does this title make it clear what Jenkins will be doing for the organization? No.
Jenkins has earned a profile (no pun intended) as media’s preeminent NBA feature writer by getting access to players’ and coaches’ lives and producing detail-rich stories. He has also served as a vessel for players like LeBron James to deliver their message. In the summer of 2014, when LeBron decided to head back to Cleveland, it was Jenkins who penned the “as-told-to” letter.
“I’m going to try and take what I’ve done for the last 11 years, which is put together profiles of athletes to explain a little bit more about who they are. … I’ve always believed that you can do that for a team … I think it can be a complement,” Jenkins said on a podcast with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Tuesday. “What I’m hoping I can help with is a little bit more of the ‘who,’ because I think NBA teams have done an incredible job with the ‘what.’”
The media-to-team pipeline has existed before. Luke Winn, another former Sports Illustrated writer, was hired by the Raptors last year as a “director of prospect strategy.” The Sixers just hired Sean Derenthal, a former editor-in-chief of the NBA draft and analysis site The Stepien, as a scout. David Kahn, a former Wolves executive, started out as a sportswriter covering the Blazers.
In a way, it makes sense that Jenkins, someone with relationships all around the league and a keen eye for finding information about players, would be valuable to the Clippers. Los Angeles is heading into a season and offseason that could prove crucial for the franchise as the team tries to nab at least one of the big-name free agents on the horizon. Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, and a handful of others will likely hit free agency next summer. Jenkins has written about and interviewed nearly everybody who will be of interest to the Clippers next year.
On the podcast with Woj, Jenkins, who noted he’s not closing the door on going back to writing at some point, said part of the reason for the move was to learn through immersion. As a journalist, he had been able to get close to a subject or situation, but still felt like he never really knew what was going on behind the scenes. Now, he says, he feels like he will.
A few years ago, when I was still a journalism student at USC, Jenkins spoke at one of my classes. After the class, I followed up with a phone call to get his advice. Two of the notes Jenkins gave me that I remembered in particular were that “limited access forces you to see subtle things,” and that stories are more successful when writers get out of their own way. With the Clippers, Jenkins will go behind the scenes even further while his public-facing persona recedes. He’s getting out of his own way and also getting more specific access than he’s ever had before. He just won’t be able to tell us about it anymore.