When he was a younger man working for Dr. Buss, when he was a perfectionist as well as a pragmatist with vision, when Jerry West had to do what he didn’t want to do because sometimes this is a heartless business, he took a breath and then picked up the telephone. He was about to trade someone he loved for someone he needed. He did it with anxiety but Jerry West did it anyway because he had to do it. The job of a general manager takes many side turns but the judgment is always the same: did you make your team better.
Jerry did that. He did it in 1983. He traded the intensely popular 27 year old Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for the #4 pick in the draft that year, Byron Scott, and suffered through fan rage. Norm pre-dated Magic, was extroverted with a great sense of humor and joy and was efficient on the floor at 15 points and 7 assists the year he was traded. He wasn’t as gifted as Magic with the ball but he had his own kind of wizardry. He was also the Lakers last link to a past before Magic changed their entire history when Lou Hudson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Jamaal Wilkes and Adrian Dantley were on the team. But the Lakers did not need two talented point guards, they needed a shooter. The trade of Norm Nixon caused a whirlwind of doubts and second guessing from the players, fans, media observers.
But Jerry knows things that others don’t and in that way he has been blessed with the mysterious gift of intuition. He knew Byron Scott, the 22 year old, was what the Lakers needed on the perimeter. He believed in Byron’s offensive ability and his defensive toughness and let Magic handle the initiation rites, the trial by fire test Magic demanded Byron pass. When Byron didn’t flinch under Magic’s ruthless can-you-stand-a-hot-fire assault, Jerry’s job was essentially done. The Lakers were better.
In March of 1999 Jerry’s anxiety surfaced again because a player he loved was a player he had to let go, this time it was Eddie Jones who was in Kobe Bryant’s way. The gifted shooting guard needed minutes if he was going to develop into the great player that Jerry, Kobe and Kobe’s family knew he could become. And so Jerry picked up the phone again and traded another popular player. With the exit of Eddie Jones, the following season, Kobe averaged 22 points a game and it was the first time in his career he broke the 20 point scoring margin.
That is Jerry’s history. He has traded players he did not want to trade, setting his own emotions aside because this is a team first league. It is the conundrum currently facing his new team, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are trying to ascend into the elite of the Western Conference with an entertaining team of perimeter scorers who play fast but are nothing more than a small ball team. They want to establish a rebounder who can stretch the defense. If not, they will forever remain a 5th or 6th seed but never a contender.
Enter Kevin Love. He needs a team that can win and the Warriors need a player who can dominate. Kevin Love is not the perfect player. He withers in the 4th quarter. His “greatness” is not transcendent. Even at 26 (points) and 12 (rebounds), he couldn’t get his team into the playoffs, in fact he has never been in the playoffs and it is unclear how he would perform once he was on the grand stage. He is a mediocre one-on-one defender, often he is unwilling. But he can score. And he can rebound. And he wants out. The Warriors want in. But enough to give up Klay Thompson?
Jerry West- the Jerry who dealt Norm Nixon and Eddie Jones, the Jerry who put his reputation on the line when he defied all basketball wisdom and gave up an All-Star center for a high school shooting guard, the one who chose James Worthy #1 in the 1982 draft instead of Player of the Year, Terry Cummings, the Jerry who brought in Robert Horry after he threw a towel in the face of then Suns coach Danny Ainge, the one who made the deal for Shaq even as it almost fell apart, that Jerry West is adamant: Klay has to stay.
Kevin Love is nice. Kevin Love may be a difference maker. Kevin Love has transformed himself into the best power forward in the league. But Kevin Love for Klay Thompson is out of the question.
Jerry is adamant and a little angry. He is fighting for Klay. The deal has been put on hold but that is just semantics. The Lakers part in it, receiving Klay in a three way deal, cannot be finalized until July 8th- the Lakers cannot trade the #7 pick to the Timberwolves until then. So everyone calm down. But Jerry won’t change his mind. If Jerry is a genius at identifying talent and team building, he is also willful and stubborn. He won’t change his mind about Klay. Because Klay, reminds Jerry of the past. He reminds Jerry of, well, Jerry.
Jerry romanticizes shooters because he was one of the best that ever played. If the 3-point shot had been around in his era he would have added 30% more points onto his 25,000 total. Jerry is not crazy. He knows Klay will never be a top 5 or a top 10 player. He doesn’t have the tools nor the skill. He is a mediocre ball handler. He doesn’t drive to the rim. He doesn’t finish through contact. He doesn’t depend on an array of offensive moves to get his shot off. He doesn’t get to the line. His fire in the belly is often questioned. But Klay is a catch and shoot three point specialist. He is the best at that particular skill than anyone else in the league and this is just his third year. In high screen and roll NBA offenses what Klay does is as valuable as what a rebounder does. The Warriors need Klay as much as they need Kevin Love. They need both. But if they only can get one, Jerry wants to keep Klay.
Jerry West and Warriors coach Steve Kerr are fighting hard to keep their Splash Brothers duo in tact. Kerr, a catch and shoot specialist whose talent never equaled Klay’s, is imagining his backcourt with just Steph Curry. That is a nightmare. Kerr knows from experience what a skilled shooter means. Take every team Ray Allen has ever been on and then take him off. See what would have happened to the champion Celtics in 2008 and the champion Heat in 2013. Take every team Reggie Miller was on and then take him off. See if the Pacers reach the NBA Finals in 2000. Take ever team Robert Horry was on and then take him off. See if the Lakers and Spurs win multiple titles.
Klay’s numbers, 44% shooting, 41% from three, are why the Lakers want him so badly. He would be a seamless transition from Kobe as the Lakers shooting guard. Kobe wants to play in the post these last two years, not on the perimeter where old legs become older. Kobe’s vision when he is double teamed would give Klay more open looks than he has on the Warriors. The Lakers are betting on Kobe’s influence- he’s known Klay since he was 15- to help Klay develop into an all around scorer and not the one dimensional talent he currently is. But what the Lakers know and see- so does Jerry West. He knows what will happen if the Lakers get Klay. And he knows what will happen if the Warriors lose Klay.
Of course Jerry could get overruled by the Warriors front office men, Joe Lacob and Bob Myers, who are determined to turn the page after questionable decisions, first firing Mark Jackson who won 51 games and second, overpaying neophyte coach Steve Kerr. To ask Steve Kerr to try to duplicate what Mark Jackson meant to the players is an uphill climb. Jackson wasn’t just their coach, he was their father, adviser, brother, pastor.
The Warriors front office men have overlooked the obvious in their bid to make headlines. They overpaid Andre Iguodala in 2013. They said goodbye to Jarrett Jack who was a key contributor for them. Two years ago they traded their best player and fan favorite Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut and then failed to disclose Bogut needed micro-fracture surgery. Their track record leaves many shaking their heads and if they give up Klay Thompson, the one person who won’t understand, nor agree, is the one person who would have a sick feeling in his stomach. Jerry West loves this game but he is tortured by this game, he absorbs every nuance and subtlety. Even as he was hired to shepherd the Warriors through these grueling decisions that run so deep within him, Jerry West may not have what he thought. His may not be the last word on Klay Thompson and Kevn Love.