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  1. Five minutes.
  2.  
  3. After all the ugly headlines from the Donald Sterling saga in April 2014 to Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion buy-in to all the calculated roster risks, the fate of the L.A. Clippers suddenly hinged on five take-your-breath-away minutes.
  4.  
  5. As the Clippers saw it, they were ready to prove themselves worthy of Kawhi Leonard’s trust, ready to make a move to honor his No. 1 priority: winning.
  6.  
  7. Trust has been central to Leonard his entire NBA career. His sour ending in San Antonio was the result of trust having eroded, and his sweet Toronto experience helped to rebuild his willingness to trust again.
  8.  
  9. Leonard showed with the Raptors that he could lead the way on a title team without a fellow top-10 player, but how wise would that approach be if the 28-year-old wanted to continue producing at an elite level for as long as possible?
  10.  
  11. Getting a running mate like Paul George, the Clippers had been informed by Leonard’s camp, would be the key to landing Leonard.
  12.  
  13. Ballmer pushed for a Leonard-and-George pairing as soon as he realized it was possible in early July. He’s not only 100 percent owner and probably the team’s most passionate fan but also a guiding force inside the front office’s strategy sessions.
  14.  
  15. Following a deliberate two-year rebuilding process, Ballmer felt it was time to shift to contention mode, especially given that Leonard’s and George’s Southern California roots represented such a special subplot in this L.A. basketball story.
  16.  
  17. At around 10:30 p.m. PT on Friday, July 5, the Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder concluded their 48-plus-hour negotiation and agreed on the framework of a deal: George for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks (two from Miami) and two pick swaps. Then came the furious five-minute finish.
  18.  
  19. The Clippers, at the goal line, told Thunder general manager Sam Presti that they were in — so long as Leonard was in, too.
  20.  
  21. Hold on, please.
  22.  
  23. President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, who handled the communication during the trade negotiations, made the call to Leonard and his uncle and trusted confidant, Dennis Robertson, to confirm that this was indeed what Leonard wanted.
  24.  
  25. We have a deal ready with the Thunder for Paul George. We can pull the trigger right now. Are you in?
  26.  
  27. He was in.
  28.  
  29. The Clippers quickly informed Presti the deal was on. And in a matter of five intense and meaningful minutes, the Clippers’ future — and the greater NBA landscape — dramatically shifted. It was one of the most impressive offseason coups in NBA history.
  30.  
  31. Four days before the Clippers landed Leonard and George, they hosted a nearly three-hour meeting with Leonard inside coach Doc Rivers’ home in Malibu. Some key progress was made that Monday afternoon. Ballmer, Rivers, Frank and famed adviser Jerry West had been there on behalf of the Clippers, with Leonard, Robertson and agent Mitch Frankel the main part of the group being courted.
  32.  
  33. The Clippers pitched Leonard on multiple points, including the way the franchise had conducted its business over the past two years; Ballmer’s competitiveness and willingness to spend any amount necessary to win; Rivers’ coaching; the humble nature of the organization’s power players; their player services and player-centric environment; the benefit of being understated in Los Angeles; the front office’s shrewd decision-making and long-term plan; and the new arena the team plans to have built in Inglewood.
  34.  
  35. These are the types of questions Leonard and his inner circle asked, sources told The Athletic’s Shams Charania: What does the future look like to you? What does my future with your organization look like? How will your franchise shape the next phase of my career?
  36.  
  37. There is a perception that in-person meetings are the first and last chance to persuade a player, but that wasn’t the case with Leonard and the Clippers. The two sides spoke every day of free agency — ranging from two to three conversations a day — about roster hypotheticals and other questions that naturally arose. The Clippers never felt they were in the dark during the process.
  38.  
  39. The Malibu sitdown was more about getting some face time and familiarity among all of the people who could become partners very soon.
  40.  
  41.  
  42. Leonard could connect with his possible coach in Rivers, whose championship résumé, ability to connect with players and dynamic personality had everything to do with Ballmer’s decision to retain him these past few seasons. Leonard could get to know Ballmer for himself, witnessing the former Microsoft CEO’s epic energy up close. He would also have a chance to hear from Frank, the Clippers’ front-office leader who had been a total stranger to him before all of this.
  43.  
  44. It became clear that the personalities and sensibilities of Leonard and the Clippers’ primary influencers aligned. The meeting went well, to be sure, but so many variables remained.
  45.  
  46. Chief among them: The Clippers had surmised early in free agency that they likely needed a co-star to secure Leonard. They understood that Leonard, who had rested 22 games during the 2018-19 season, spawning the term “load management,” likely needed the right teammate to help ease the burden. By Monday’s meeting, time was running out before Leonard’s self-imposed deadline — the end of the week — to decide his future.
  47.  
  48. Leonard was upfront that his decision would come down to the organization he believed presented him the best competitive window for the rest of his prime. The conversation at Rivers’ house centered on winning above all else — over money and geography and culture and accolades. Playing close to his home of Riverside, while a significant factor, was secondary to winning championships.
  49.  
  50. In a competitive sense, the Clippers trailed the Raptors and the Lakers on paper, even though the Clippers believed they could still contend for championships by only adding Leonard to a core that won 48 games and pushed a healthy Golden State Warriors squad to six games in the 2019 postseason.
  51.  
  52. The Lakers had the LeBron James-Anthony Davis duo that could guarantee title contention if Leonard joined, and the Raptors’ formula — while probably not sustainable for the long haul — was proven. Leonard’s trip on the Raptors’ private plane to Toronto and back to Southern California a day later raised the Clippers’ concerns. So, too, did Danny Green’s decision to wait out Leonard’s outcome. The Clippers felt there was a legitimate chance Leonard was staying in Toronto.
  53.  
  54. The Clippers brass decided that, instead of hoping Leonard would take a leap of faith and choose them, believing that they could then trade for another star later in the summer or by the 2020 trade deadline, the franchise would cash in most of the assets it had been accumulating since 2017 and demonstrate to Leonard that it was serious about building a sustainable contender around him.
  55.  
  56. The code of silence was an unspoken rule.
  57.  
  58. But Leonard and his representatives made it clear: We have a way we handle business, and we expect the same. Leonard and his camp asked questions and received responses. Details shared in meetings, private and personal information on both sides, were to remain within the group. Leonard promised that to each team and expected the same, sources told Charania.
  59.  
  60. From their multiple conversations throughout the process, it was clear to the Clippers that trust, privacy and respect were important components of a productive partnership for Leonard.
  61.  
  62. “If you fuck this up, you’re done, you’re out,” one front-office executive involved in the process explained to The Athletic. “They didn’t say that, but that was the message. It was basically, ‘Look, we would appreciate discretion.’ Which means, ‘Keep your fucking mouth shut.’”
  63.  
  64. For the Clippers’ purposes, this was not a problem — secrecy was their preferred style long before this well-known request had been made.
  65.  
  66. Remember: The Clippers blindsided the league by trading away Blake Griffin in 2018 and Tobias Harris in 2019. There were no leaks ahead of either deal. The Clippers’ front office operates in the shadows, similar to the way Leonard and his camp have conducted his business since he entered the league in 2011.
  67.  
  68. The Lakers, whom many around the league presumed were in the lead for Leonard’s services before he chose the Clippers, famously function on the opposite end of the spectrum, at least in an informal way.
  69.  
  70. Magic Johnson, the Lakers legend who abruptly resigned as president of basketball operations in late May and proceeded to torch owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka on national television weeks later, thought it wise to broadcast that Robertson had called to pick his brain about the purple-and-gold before free agency had even begun.
  71.  
  72. “I truly believe that when Magic started telling the media about the meeting he had with Kawhi and Dennis, that sealed the fate of the Lakers,” a person involved in the process told The Athletic. “I think that right there was when Dennis and Kawhi decided we can’t trust the Lakers as an organization. And that was it. I think that was it for them.”
  73.  
  74.  
  75. Though that act alone didn’t eliminate the Lakers — Leonard still met and communicated with them before his decision — Johnson’s leakage certainly didn’t help his former employer’s pitch.
  76.  
  77. On a fundamental level, the idea of forming a Big Three with James and Davis didn’t appeal to Leonard’s core sensibilities. He forged his legacy taking down super teams — like the 2014 Miami Heat and the 2019 Golden State Warriors — rather than joining them.
  78.  
  79. “Elite players like Kawhi earn their stripes, and he was not going to be a guy who joins a so-called ‘super team,’” one source close to the situation told Charania. “Now, if a super team forms around him, there is nothing he can control. The Clippers were the best long-term fit.”
  80.  
  81. As the NBA rumor mill rampantly churned, with multiple league insiders and media personalities placing the Clippers a distant third in the Leonard sweepstakes, the Clippers never felt compelled to respond or alter the public narrative.
  82.  
  83. Instead, they doubled down on their silence, ghosting the media and going off the grid. They were fine sitting back and obeying Leonard’s wishes, letting the media speculate and provide information from his meetings with the Lakers and the Raptors.
  84.  
  85. Honoring Leonard’s request was the easy part. Finding him a co-star proved more complex.
  86.  
  87. On that day that forever changed a once-laughable franchise, the front office was in a familiar, and temporary, station that had been its work home since May 1: Rented corporate space in El Segundo, about a quarter-mile from the Lakers’ headquarters, because, well, upgrades and renovations at the Playa Vista practice facility were causing a bit of dust.
  88.  
  89. This was the place where they executed their offseason playbook, where long days and short nights became the norm for this front office that might be the deepest and most talented in the league.
  90.  
  91. In the days leading up to Leonard’s decision, their core group — Frank, general manager Michael Winger, assistant general managers Mark Hughes and Trent Redden, and executive director of research and identity Lee Jenkins — had barely slept.
  92.  
  93. That included a 48-hour period in which the front office strategized seemingly every avenue possible to improve its roster around Leonard. On the final few nights before his announcement, the group would call it quits in the office around 2 a.m., then be back before 7 a.m.
  94.  
  95. But considering all that was at stake, the wheels would keep turning when the group headed home. Good luck reaching an REM state with this kind of opportunity in the balance.
  96.  
  97. As the Clippers surveyed the NBA scene, it wasn’t yet clear whom they could pair with the 2019 Finals MVP. They analyzed and studied every roster and star player in the league, attempting to find out who would best fit alongside Leonard, both on the hardwood and from a personality standpoint.
  98.  
  99. The Clippers inquired about Washington’s Bradley Beal and Houston’s James Harden, according to league sources, but neither star was available.
  100.  
  101. As The Athletic previously reported, Leonard had an interest in joining forces with Jimmy Butler on the Clippers and, according to ESPN, also reached out to Kevin Durant about teaming up in Los Angeles.
  102.  
  103. Enter Paul George.
  104.  
  105. Around the time of the draft, Russell Westbrook and George both communicated their discontent to the Thunder and expressed interest in the franchise possibly making significant changes, league sources told The Athletic. There had been frustration yet again at season’s end, with the Westbrook-George pairing falling short in the first round of the playoffs for a second time. It would only be natural that all options were considered.
  106.  
  107. The Thunder worked on quelling their duo’s concerns over the subsequent days and thought matters had been resolved — if only temporarily — by the start of free agency on June 30.
  108.  
  109. Oklahoma City moved forward with Westbrook and George as the foundation of its roster, and its free-agency pursuits — the agreement/non-agreement of Alec Burks and the addition of Mike Muscala — appeared to be evidence that it was adding to a playoff-level core. (After the Thunder sent George to the Clippers, they granted Burks’ wishes and let him sign with Golden State.)
  110.  
  111. But on July 3, the Clippers received word that George wanted out of Oklahoma City and Leonard had been recruiting George to ask for a trade to team up with him and the Clippers. There are conflicting accounts on Leonard’s involvement in recruiting George. For the record, it should be stated that a source told Charania that it is “not accurate” that Leonard recruited George to demand a trade and come to the Clippers.
  112.  
  113. George sensed this was a special opportunity to head back home to Southern California, collaborate with one of the game’s best players in Leonard, contend for championships and join a like-minded organization in the Clippers. His endorsement was crucial — and, after talking with Leonard, he was on board.
  114.  
  115.  
  116. Leonard knew that this approach — having another elite star by his side to help compete for championships — was the most sustainable path to long-term success. He didn’t just want a superstar teammate, though. He wanted someone he could rely on and trust to help ease the burden on both ends. George more than fit that bill.
  117.  
  118. The scenario of trading for George, as one person involved in the Clippers’ process made clear, was “nowhere in our journal.” That hardly mattered, of course. The Clippers pursued the move that seemed too good to be true — adding another versatile two-way force in the middle of his prime, who also shared a similar temperament and team-first attitude with Leonard.
  119.  
  120. When George went to the Thunder and informed them that he wanted to go to the Clippers, it changed everything for Oklahoma City. He was the domino. From there, Westbrook and his agent, Thad Foucher, engaged in discussions with Presti about what it all meant. Eight days later — and six days after the report of George being traded to the Clippers — Westbrook had been dealt to Houston.
  121.  
  122. Yet one rival team indicated to The Athletic that the Thunder were willing to discuss the prospect of trading Westbrook leading into the draft, with that revelation seen as a sign that they were considering changes even before George made his move.
  123.  
  124. Presti took the initial trade call from Frank regarding George — as good a sign as any that this opportunity was real, considering his tendency to be brutally candid in those times when he has no interest in discussing players who aren’t available. Before long, with the Clippers well aware that this unique pairing between Leonard and George meant they’d have to pay the freight for two free agents, all the puzzle pieces were aligning perfectly.
  125.  
  126. Hours before the Clippers acquired Leonard and George, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake began in nearby Ridgecrest, a fitting precursor.
  127.  
  128. When the Clippers’ front office formed late in the summer of 2017, it envisioned methodically building to contention. Realistically, that meant a four- to five-year plan. The Clippers circled the summer of 2021 as the earliest they would become players in the free-agency derby. In the meantime, they would overhaul every aspect of the organization, organically establish a culture, and accrue assets and roster flexibility.
  129.  
  130. There had been considerable progress since Ballmer purchased the team in 2014, but the franchise still needed to develop at a rate consistent with the league’s top franchises. It was a process that grinders like Frank and Winger looked forward to.
  131.  
  132. But Leonard’s trade demand out of San Antonio in the summer of 2018 changed the Clippers’ priorities — and, eventually, the franchise’s trajectory. He was the type of franchise-altering player the organization believed they’d need years to acquire. And, even though most of the media speculation centered on Leonard and the Lakers, Leonard had always kept an eye toward the Clippers, a source told Charania.
  133.  
  134. Once it became clear the Clippers were a viable prospect for Leonard, they pursued him as brazenly as a team has pursued a free agent in the modern free-agent era. That included Frank scouting him in person — rare for a president of basketball operations — Ballmer flying up to Toronto to watch him play during the Clippers’ lone appearance at Scotiabank Arena, and Rivers’ $50,000 tampering fine from the league for comparing Leonard to Michael Jordan on an ESPN broadcast during the NBA Finals.
  135.  
  136. Frankly, the haul the Clippers gave up for George — and Leonard — proves how much they wanted to get a deal done.
  137.  
  138. From the Clippers’ perspective, the package looks worse if viewed only as the vehicle for acquiring George. But without George, there might have been no Leonard. Had the Clippers done a three-team sign-and-trade with the Raptors and Thunder to acquire Leonard and George, sending half of those assets to Toronto and the remaining half to Oklahoma City, the optics of the trade would be much different.
  139.  
  140. The most difficult concession was parting with Gilgeous-Alexander, their prized sophomore point guard who had become a beacon of hope for the organization. He’s the type of young tantalizing talent every smart front office loves — and a non-negotiable inclusion for the Thunder. The Clippers believe he is a future All-Star and were “heartbroken” when they uttered his name on the trade call, as one person involved in the process put it. They didn’t want to trade him.
  141.  
  142. The Clippers, who have “flow charts out the wazoo,” as Frank joked on draft night, examined every possible outcome over the next few seasons. Was it worth it to give up Gilgeous-Alexander and multiple first-round picks, potentially mortgaging their future if things didn’t work out with Leonard and George? Was deviating from their long-term plan for these two players a sensible risk?
  143.  
  144. The question the Clippers eventually settled on: Could they possibly conceive of a better pairing than Leonard and George in the near term?
  145.  
  146. After scanning every scenario of every star who’d realistically become available over the next few seasons, they couldn’t think of a better duo. They had to strike in the moment or forever regret a missed opportunity.
  147.  
  148. The Clippers knew the 2020 free-agent class will be uninspiring. The 2021 class has multiple All-NBA and All-Star players, but barring an addition like Giannis Antetokounmpo, they didn’t see a possible combination that could sniff the two-way talent of Leonard and George. The Clippers believe Leonard is the best player in basketball, and they view George as a top-five talent.
  149.  
  150. The acquisitions, of course, aren’t without short- and long-term risk.
  151.  
  152. Leonard and George both have a checkered recent injury history, with George enduring two shoulder procedures this offseason that could keep him out to start the season, and Leonard’s right quad injury lingering from San Antonio to Toronto (and causing a left knee issue in the playoffs). Also, both superstars can opt out and test free agency in 2021, meaning that, in a doomsday scenario, the Clippers could lose both after just two seasons and not have Gilgeous-Alexander or their draft picks as a security blanket heading into the mid-2020s.
  153.  
  154. But the Clippers were aware, when negotiating with Leonard, that he would sign a two-plus-one deal. It makes the most financial sense and gives him leverage if things go south. There have been no promises made, but the Clippers envision having him and George through the rest of their primes — and, hopefully, the rest of their careers.
  155.  
  156. Ultimately, these two moves were validation for everything the front office and organization had been building towards for three summers — for the controversial Griffin and Harris trades, which were ridiculed by those who doubted the Clippers could ever enter the ranks of legitimate NBA destinations and questioned the franchise’s loyalty. This was validation for making a bunch of smart moves around the periphery and building the right way, for prioritizing the black top over the big top.
  157.  
  158. While negotiating with Oklahoma City, the Clippers worried there was a chance Leonard could change his mind at any moment and stay put in Toronto. You never know until you know in free agency. That’s what made those moments in between agreeing to the George deal and Leonard’s confirmation so nerve-wracking.
  159.  
  160. The Clippers could have stood pat, passed on trading for George, kept Gilgeous-Alexander, hoarded their assets and still possibly landed Leonard. That will always be one of the all-time what-ifs.
  161.  
  162. But the Clippers sought to eliminate the uncertainty around Leonard’s decision. They wanted to go above and beyond to earn his trust, showing that when they say they will do something for him — like, say, construct a championship roster — they mean it.
  163.  
  164. You want Paul George? We’ll move the moon to get him for you.
  165.  
  166. We’ll re-sign Patrick Beverley, JaMychal Green, Ivica Zubac and Rodney McGruder, and trade for Moe Harkless, designing what many across the NBA believe is the league’s best roster.
  167.  
  168. “Trust us,” the Clippers told Leonard — not with their words, but their actions.
  169.  
  170. And, at the end of the most important five minutes in franchise history, he did.
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