Clippers general manager Michael Winger was working with a group of team executives late on July 5, 2019, out of temporary office space in Manhattan Beach, when an earthquake briefly interrupted their plan to change the course of franchise history.
The earthquake struck while the group was attempting to put the final details together to trade with 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 tilesfalling from the ceiling, Winger and his Clippers colleagues ran toward what they hoped was a structurally integral area.
“We all ended up in a stairway, in our minds, running for our lives,” Winger said.
Once the shaking subsided, they ran back to their makeshift workspace and their conference calls to secure a startling transaction.
The public didn’t know about the moment in part because Winger kept such a low profile as the team’s second highest-ranking basketball executive. He didn’t hold public interviews. In six seasons, the team kept only so much as a headshot of Winger. But other teams around the NBA knew plenty about Winger and his renown for understanding the league’s collective bargaining agreement and salary cap. A few teams checked on his interest in leaving the Clippers. Each time, he stayed.
Until Wednesday. After weeks of conversations with Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Winger agreed to become Washington’s president of Monumental Basketball, a role in which he will oversee all of Washington’s basketball operations — the Wizards, the WNBA’s Mystics, the G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, and all of the facilities those teams use.
In his first interview since his hiring, Winger told The Times on Thursday that he left now because he had reached a point in his career, which included previous stops in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, where he wondered whether he would have an opportunity to be a lead executive.
“And if I do ever have the opportunity to do it will I have the opportunity to do it for the right owner, for the right fan base and the right market?” he said. “And seldom I think in pro sports do those opportunities come along where almost all of your boxes, if not all of your boxes, are checked. And this was I think the rare and supremely fortunate opportunity for somebody like me to check all the boxes: ownership, market, fan base, already a talented team.”
The geography helped. Winger lived in Baltimore during his last year of law school while also working for a sports agent, and had strong memories of driving into D.C. to visit friends.
“I just felt like if I’m ever going to challenge myself, now’s the time and Ted’s the right person,” he said. “I think D.C. is the right fan base.”
Winger plans to officially wind down his role with the Clippers next week before turning his attention fully on the Wizards. He will leave behind a six-year tenure in which Winger, as part of a brand-new front office under Lawrence Frank, president of basketball operations, traded Blake Griffin to transition the Clippers from their Lob City era to that of Leonard and George in less than 18 months.
He said he leaves most pleased that team owner Steve Ballmer “is happy with the team” and progress on a new Inglewood arena, slated to open in 2024, and that the team — once a place league staffers and players avoided under the ownership of Donald Sterling — had become an attractive destination.
In February, he was one of several key voices supporting the addition of guard Russell Westbrook, whom he knew well from Oklahoma City, “loved” that Westbrook ultimately joined and revived his career.
Far shorter, he said, was the list of the plans that had yet to materialize. Injuries have cut short each of the team’s last three postseason runs, including in 2021, when the deepest postseason in franchise history ended in the conference finals — a run he feels confident would have gone further if healthy.
“I would have liked to have won one or more championships in the four years that we’ve had Paul and Kawhi, but every team that tries to win a championship and doesn’t wishes that they would have won a championship,” Winger said. “I mean, certainly winning at the highest level would have been awesome. What else? That’s really it.
“I personally am gonna be sad that I don’t get to experience however many years Paul and Kawhi have left together because I think that they are a championship tandem. I believe that to my core that those two guys when healthy can absolutely win a championship, so I’m a little sad that I’m not gonna be there when they finally do.”
His challenge with the Wizards is not dissimilar to what he walked into with the Clippers in 2017 — turning a team with a history of playoff shortcomings 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. Winger has familiarity with the coach tasked with the turnaround, as Wes Unseld Jr. interviewed with the Clippers for their top job in 2020.
While interviewing with Washington, Winger said relatively little time was spent charting his immediate thoughts for a roster that is slightly below the luxury tax with 13 players under contract. Part of that is because Winger will be recruiting and hiring executives in charge of each team, and the plan for the Wizards will be one crafted later by that future executive and Winger.
“We are going to search for a single person to run the Wizards,” he said.
In the whirlwind of his previous 24 hours since his hiring became public, he had yet to speak with any players. That includes All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of the league’s top scorers but who has battled to stay healthy. The five-year max contract he signed in 2020 includes a no-trade clause.
“His former coaches, his former teammates, they all have extraordinarily high regard for him, and he is unequivocally a superstar,” Winger said. “The hardest thing to do in the NBA is acquire a superstar talent and it’s even harder to acquire superstar talent with his level of character. And so, I think it’s an extremely, extremely fortunate starting point. So to me, that’s really exciting to have somebody like Brad on the team.”
The bulk of his conversations with Leonsis, Winger said, were spent on finding where they aligned on what he called a big-picture vision for building an organization. Winger values process. So does Leonsis, he said. Leonsis wanted to know Winger’s thoughts on developing a “culture” that could lead to sustainable success.
He’s had a key role with a similar effort before, in Los Angeles. Washington presents a familiar task — with, perhaps, fewer earthquakes.
Leonsis “is willing to put forth both the resources and the patience to incrementally build a highly functional, adaptive organization, and if you have that the results almost take care of themselves,” Winger said. “And I was drawn to that vision. And he’s demonstrated that with the Capitals [who won the 2018 Stanley Cup].
“The proof is right there. It’s just a matter of taking some of those principles, injecting the equivalent of the NBA’s nuances into those principles, and hopefully building something that is sturdy, sound, attracts good players, attracts good staff, keeps good players, keeps good staff, and ultimately wins basketball games.”