Clippers’ Steve Ballmer optimistic about short- and long-term prospects

LOS ANGELES — Steve Ballmer said he surveyed everyone he could think of about the Clippers’ new arena plans, Kawhi Leonard included.

The team’s owner asked his star for his reaction to the innovative scoreboard they’re planning to install in the Intuit Dome, which is slated to open in 2024.

That scoreboard is, to borrow Ballmer’s description: “A two-sided, oval-shaped halo scoreboard – first in basketball! – that will circle the top of the bowl, gleaming with 44,000 square feet of LED lights!”

That’s an acre, if you’re keeping score at home.

Leonard’s response to such an ingenious feature?

“He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I think that could work,’” Ballmer recalled. “‘I think that can work.’”

Leonard’s opinion remains mighty relevant after the five-time All-Star from Moreno Valley re-signed with the Clippers on a $176.3 million deal that will run through 2025 – and the opening of the Intuit Dome.

His co-star Paul George also is on a contract that runs through 2024-25 after signing a four-year, $190 million extension before the start of last season.

Securing the services of both of those players is a big deal, Ballmer said Thursday in a conversation with Clippers beat writers at the “Experience Center,” an entire floor in the team’s current office building in downtown L.A. that’s dedicated to modeling various parts of the Intuit Dome – such as the Halo Board.

“It’s phenomenal! It would’ve been phenomenal without a new building!” exclaimed Ballmer, noting that although Leonard’s torn anterior cruciate ligament injury will hinder the team’s competitive prospects in the short term, he expects to field a squad in the years to come that should prove as competitive as last season’s.

The 2020-21 Clippers reached the Western Conference finals for the first time, pushing Phoenix to six games without Leonard. Several key players from that unit will return this season, including Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, who both re-signed in free agency.

“We improved in many ways,” Ballmer said when asked to evaluate the team’s progress following the 2020 second-round playoff collapse. “Doc (Rivers) is a great coach; Ty (Lue) is a super-great coach also. And Ty, for our team, wow. What a great coach. Love Ty. Doc, great. But Ty seems to have worked better with our guys somehow. We performed better.”

Paul George, especially.

After struggling in the bubble, George put the Clippers on his back this past postseason, helping them compensate when Leonard was lost in Game 4 of their second-round series against top-seeded Utah.

George became the sixth NBA player to record 500 points, 150 rebounds and 100 assists in a single postseason, a list that otherwise includes only LeBron James (who has tallied those totals eight times), Larry Bird (three times), Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Tim Duncan.

He also became the third player to score 20 or more points in each playoff game of a run that extended at least 19 games, joining Michael Jordan (who did it in 1992, ’97 and ’98) and Kevin Durant (’12, ’18).

“Paul George, people were on his back a year ago,” Ballmer said. “Paul was the man in the playoffs, he was the man! It was unbelievable, what he did in the playoffs. Even with Kawhi down to come back and take it from Utah and push it as far and hard as we did against Phoenix. …

“So, so many things have come so far. I was reading the other day, whatever the magic day was that was one year from the end of our season last year in the bubble, and that felt like a very distant memory to me, it did not feel like a year ago.

“And guess what? I’m not gonna go back and think about that again.”

Ballmer would rather look ahead.

“Obviously it hurt to lose Kawhi,” Ballmer said. “But we can roll a comparably great team out on the floor for the next several years. And we got some young guys coming along like Terance (Mann) and Luke (Kennard) and Justise (Winslow) and the guys we drafted last year and this year to help fill in. Feeling pretty good.”

And it’s worth noting: A good basketball product will be good for the bottom line.

“I will say, it helped Golden State a lot in terms of what they could command for prices for their suites, etc., that they won some championships,” Ballmer said. “I don’t mind the fact that we could be pretty god darn good during the course of the next few years.”

That includes next season – scheduled to tip off on Oct. 21 at Golden State – even down one superstar.

“We’ll have a very good team, we’ll make the playoffs,” said Ballmer, explaining why he believes his optimism is founded. “We could be a decent playoff team, according to the bookies. Of course, I’m more optimistic, but I use the bookies as kind of an independent way to think about it. I don’t gamble, but it’s just a way to talk about it.

“With Kawhi, I think we’re even better than that, but I think people think we’ll have a pretty darn good team.”

That’s how he’ll always prefer it, he said.

“We’re all in,” Ballmer said. “I would have a hard time not being all in to win, because you’re all in for the process or the rebuild or whatever. I don’t know that it will always be possible, but it’s always my goal that every year we put out the best, and I think in L.A., we should think we can do that.”

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