LAS VEGAS - Steve Ballmer arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center to take in NBA Summer League action this week, only to find the VIP courtside seats full. Searching for the next best thing, the Los Angeles Clippers owner slid into an unoccupied space on media row. Within minutes, a local beat writer emerged and a custody battle for the reserved chair ensued.
Another local writer, unaware of Ballmer's import, stepped forward as a neutral arbiter and asked the former Microsoft CEO to vacate. A dense awkwardness set in, and a power struggle seemed imminent. Thankfully, no staffers were summoned, and no cards were played. Ballmer, whose $50 billion net worth makes him the richest owner in American sports, apologized for squatting, hopped to his feet, and batted away the sheepishness once everyone finally realized his identity.
While Ballmer graciously surrendered that game of musical chairs, he now sits at the head of the NBA's table after landing all-star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers, an afterthought in their own city for decades, have emerged as the early 2020 title favorites, and rivals are left grappling with Ballmer's overnight arrival as a basketball power broker and his organization's dramatic change in fortune.
An informal survey of NBA executives, coaches and scouts at Summer League revealed a healthy admiration for the new-look Clippers, with most respondents pegging them as the team most likely to win next year's title. Even so, the collective tenor was noticeably different from the hyperbole and resignation generated by the Golden State Warriors throughout the Kevin Durant era. Ballmer's team inspires respect, but not fear. At least for now.
The survey's most bullish voices turned first to the budding partnership between Leonard, the 2019 Finals MVP, and George, who finished third in 2019 MVP voting.
One executive rhetorically asked which teams are in position to match up with a pair of elite two-way wings in a playoff series, ticking through a list of contenders without arriving at a satisfactory answer. He then weighed Leonard and George against LeBron James' former pairing with Dwyane Wade, concluding that the Miami Heat stars were more explosive, but that the Clippers' duo is longer, more imposing and more disciplined defensively.
"I'm not saying Kawhi Leonard is Michael Jordan and I'm not saying Paul George is Scottie Pippen," the executive said. "But you have to go all the way back to those guys to find two [perimeter players] who can score the ball and hound their men like this."
In that same vein, another executive noted that the Clippers strike a better balance between offense and defense than the Los Angeles Lakers. A third noted that the Clippers have the "rare luxury" of alternating their stars defensively against the league's top playmakers, such as Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
"I feel bad for the Rockets," the executive said. "They spent years trying to build the perfect team to beat the Warriors and couldn't do it. Then, the Clippers built the perfect team to beat [the Rockets] in 24 hours."
One coach pointed to the personality fit between Leonard and George as the most underrated aspect of the Clippers' moves. Both stars are low-key and in their respective primes, so winning should be their sole focus.
Leonard, he argued, was a more team-oriented and system-oriented player than Russell Westbrook, George's former Oklahoma City Thunder co-star. George, in turn, should enjoy more success in a large supporting role rather than as the focal point of an offense.
"It will be hard to drive a wedge between them," the coach said. "I don't see Kawhi caring if Paul is more famous, and I don't see Paul caring if Kawhi is the closer. To be honest, I think Patrick Beverley is the alpha dog in their locker room, anyway."
The Clippers' key returning players - Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell - drew plenty of praise from survey respondents. A scout called L.A. "the hardest-playing team we faced" last year, and evoked the 2019 Toronto Raptors.
"Kawhi was great [in the playoffs], but the Raptors needed those veterans who had never won to step up," the scout said, singling out Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. "Kawhi is going to another hungry locker room. None of those guys have won anything and they never shut up about being underrated. Well, here's your chance."
An assistant coach, however, was more intrigued by L.A.'s lineup versatility than its feistiness. He compared Harrell to a poor man's Draymond Green because the high-energy, undersized center allows coach Doc Rivers to play athletic small ball lineups that can maximize offensive spacing and switch everything defensively. While he wasn't enamored with Ivica Zubac, the scout said the 7-foot-1 center should be able to buy time for the Clippers' best lineups just like the Warriors' many stand-in starting centers over the past five years.
Most of the skepticism among survey respondents centered on health concerns about the Clippers' core players. Leonard, one coach noted, was dragging during the playoffs despite his regular-season load management program, George underwent offseason surgeries on both shoulders, and Beverley has had recurring injury issues during his career.
The coach picked the Milwaukee Bucks to win the 2020 title, theorizing that they have a relatively easy path to the Finals in the East and that the Clippers wouldn't survive the West's gauntlet unscathed.
"The Clippers aren't like the Warriors [of recent years]," the coach concluded. "The normal rules apply. One injury to a star and they're toast. Just like everybody else."
Other nitpicks from coaches and scouts included concerns about a lack of rim-protection and a shortage of pass-first ballhandlers. One coach wondered how the Clippers plan to guard Lakers forward Anthony Davis and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid; he also predicted that Leonard would badly miss Lowry's ability to run the offense.
As is commonplace with new star pairings, scouts warned about an inevitable feeling-out period between Leonard and George. These voices also argued that load management for one or both stars could slow down the team's ability to jell.
There was also a "prove it" strain among the doubters: the Clippers have never advanced to the West finals, and their hyped "Lob City" teams repeatedly fizzled out in the playoffs. Rivers, though, was widely hailed as the right coach for the job given his communication skills and championship experience with the Boston Celtics.
One scout expected that the Clippers front office, which went all-in by dealing five first-round picks for George, to aggressively seek talent before the trade deadline and in the buyout market to help make their massive bet pay off.
If that fear proves accurate, Ballmer better start saving seats on the Clippers' bandwagon for late-arriving converts.