‘Now is the time’: Former Clippers GM Michael Winger talks about his tenure in LA

Clippers CEO Michael Winger was working with a team of team executives late on July 5, 2019, outside of their temporary offices in Manhattan Beach, when an earthquake disrupted their plan to change franchise history.

The earthquake occurred as the team was trying to put together the final details to trade Oklahoma City for All-Star Paul George and secure the commitment of free agent and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard. Seeing windows shaking and tiles falling from the ceiling, Winger and his Clippers colleagues ran to what they hoped was a comprehensive structural area.

“We all ended up on a ladder, in our heads, running for our lives,” Winger said.

After the jitters subsided, it was back to their temporary workspace and conference calls to secure an amazing transaction.

The public was unaware of the moment, in part because Winger kept a low profile as the team’s second basketball executive. He did not do any public interviews. In six seasons, the team only kept one shot at Winger’s head. But other NBA teams knew a lot about Winger and his reputation for understanding the league’s collective bargaining agreement and salary cap. A number of teams checked his interest in leaving the Clippers. Each time, he stayed.

Until Wednesday. After weeks of talks with Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Winger agreed to serve as president of Monumental Basketball in Washington, a role in which he will oversee all basketball operations in Washington: the Wizards, the WNBA’s Mystics, G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go. , and all the facilities used by these groups.

In his first interview since being hired, Winger told The Times on Thursday that he left now because he had reached a point in his career, including previous stops in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, where he questioned whether he would have a chance. chief executive

“And if I ever get a chance to do it, will I get a chance to do it for the right owner, the right fans and the right market?” he said “And I think rarely in professional sports do those opportunities come along where almost all of your boxes, if not all of your boxes, are checked. And I think this was a rare and fortunate opportunity for someone like me to check all the boxes: the ownership, the market, the fan base , already a very talented group.”

Geography helped. Winger lived in Baltimore during his last year of law school while working for a sports agent, and had strong memories of driving to DC to visit friends.

“I felt like if I ever challenged myself, now is the time and Ted is the right person,” she said. “I think it’s the right DC fan base.”

The winger plans to officially step down from his role with the Clippers next week before turning his full attention to the Wizards. He leaves a six-year tenure in which Winger, as part of a new front office under president of basketball operations Lawrence Franken, traded Blake Griffin to transition the Clippers from their Lob City era to the Leonard and George era. less than 18 months.

He said he is very happy to leave team owner Steve Ballmer is “happy with the team” and moving forward with a new Inglewood arena that will open in 2024, and the team – once shunned by the league’s staff and players under Donald’s ownership. Sterling – became an attractive destination.

In February, he was one of several vocal supporters of the addition of guard Russell Westbrook, whom he knew well from Oklahoma City, saying he “loved” that Westbrook had finally come in and resurrected his career.

He said the list of plans that had yet to be implemented was much shorter. Injuries have cut short each of the team’s last three postseason runs, including 2021, when the deepest postseason run in franchise history ended in the conference finals, with confidence that it would have gone further if healthy.

From left, Clippers center Mason Plumlee, forward Kawhi Leonard and forward Paul George look on from the bench during overtime against the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 26 in Denver.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

“In the four years we’ve had Paul and Kawhi, I’d love to win a championship or more, but every team that tries to win a championship and doesn’t want to win a championship,” Winger said. . “I mean, definitely winning at the highest level would have been huge. What else? That’s really it.

“Personally, I’ll be sad that I don’t get to experience the many years that Paul and Kawhi have left together, because I think they are a championship tandem. I believe in my core that when those two guys are healthy they can win a championship, so I’m a little sad that I won’t be there when they get it.”

His challenge with the Wizards is not unlike the one he faced with the Clippers in 2017 — turning a playoff-deprived team into a viable contender.

The Wizards last made the playoffs in 2021, their only postseason appearance since 2018. The franchise has not advanced past the second round since 1979. The winger knows the coach responsible for the turnaround, as Wes Unseld Jr. interviewed with the Clippers for his job. main job in 2020.

While interviewing with Washington, Winger said relatively little time had passed to determine his immediate thoughts for a roster that is just under the luxury tax with 13 players under contract. Part of that is because Winger will recruit and hire executives for each team, and the Wizards’ plan will then be crafted by that future executive and Winger.

“We’re going to be looking for one person to lead the Wizards,” he said.

In the whirlwind of the previous 24 hours since the signing was made public, no player had yet spoken. Among the All-Star shooters is Bradley Beal, one of the league’s leading scorers but who has struggled to stay healthy. The maximum five-year contract he signed in 2020 includes a no-trade clause.

“His former coaches, his former teammates, they all have such a high regard for him, and he’s definitely a superstar,” Winger said. “The hardest thing to do in the NBA is to acquire superstar talent and it’s even harder to acquire superstar talent with his level of character. And so I think it’s a very, very fortunate starting point. So it’s really exciting for me to have someone like Brad on the team.”

The majority of his conversations with Leonsis, Winger said, were spent finding areas that aligned with what he called his big-picture vision for building an organization. Winger values ​​process. So did Leonsis, he said. Leonsis wanted to know Winger’s thoughts on developing a “culture” that can lead to lasting success.

He has played a key role in a similar effort before, in Los Angeles. Washington presents a familiar task, perhaps with fewer earthquakes.

Leonsis is “willing to provide the resources and patience to build a highly functional and adaptable organization, and if they do, the results will pretty much take care of themselves,” Winger said. “And that view attracted me. And he has proven that with the Capitals (who won the Stanley Cup in 2018).

“The proof is right there. It’s just taking some of those principles, injecting the NBA equivalent of nuance into those principles, and hopefully building something solid, solid, that attracts good players, attracts good staff, keeps good players, keeps good staff, and ultimately builds something. he wins basketball games.’

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