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Los Angeles Clippers took a big gamble by acquiring James Harden, but it could result in big payoff

LOS ANGELES – After spending his offseason requesting a trade and calling Philadelphia 76ers executive Daryl Morey a liar, James Harden sauntered into the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room in a significantly better mood.

Less than 24 hours after the Clippers acquired Harden and P.J. Tucker from Philadelphia, they embraced new teammates and staff members. They introduced themselves to reporters. And as Harden paced around the locker room, he was asked if he felt excited that the Sixers finally obliged his trade request.

“You don’t understand!” James Harden said before the Clippers’ 118-102 win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday at Crypto.com Arena.

The Clippers will find out, for better or for worse, whether they understand.

Facing uncertainty on their star players’ health and if they have enough depth to absorb it, the Clippers gambled one of their last valuable poker chips in hopes to rectify their past postseason shortcomings. This transaction could produce either a Hollywood blockbuster or a Hollywood flop.

The Clippers landed an elite point guard that remains one of the league’s best shooters, ball handlers and passers. Yet, Harden has often disappeared in high-stakes playoff games with Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

Harden gives the Clippers a comfortable security blanket in case Leonard and George spend more time in the trainer’s room. Yet, Harden has also struggled in recent seasons to stay durable.

Harden (Hawthorne) provides a feel-good story with joining Leonard (Moreno Valley), George (Palmdale) and Russell Westbrook (LA) as the All-Southern California team. But as shown during his stops in Houston (Chris Paul, Westbrook), Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving) and Philadelphia (Joel Embiid), Harden struggled with adjusting his role after thriving as the main star during his prime years in Houston.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue couldn’t speak about the trade before and after Tuesday’s over the Orlando Magic at Crypto.com Arena, let alone provide clarity on when Harden will play in his first game. Though players are not subject to any tampering rules, Leonard and Westbrook declined to speak as well.

Their excitement level before the game spoke loud enough. The Clippers are aware of Harden’s red flags. They are also aware Harden still gives them their best shot at actually winning an NBA championship.

This doesn’t mean the move won’t backfire. The Clippers might have three stars instead of two that nurse overlapping injuries. They don’t have as many role players to mitigate those absences as they once did. The Clippers will not run as fast of a pace as they did in training camp and at the beginning of the 2023-24 season. Even with the Clippers acquiring a proven All-Star caliber player, they have not cemented themselves as a favored NBA contender.

Related: Los Angeles Clippers’ standing in Sportsnaut’s NBA power rankings

Los Angeles Clippers’ trade for James Harden was only realistic choice

los angeles clippers
Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Yet, the Clippers made the best choice available to them. They at least increased their odds to make a dark-horse run at an NBA championship. They at least ensured they will either have star power or cap flexibility when they move to their privately-funded arena (Intuit Dome) for the 2024-25 season.

Instead of waiting until the NBA trade deadline to gauge their needs, the Clippers gave themselves more time to integrate Harden onto the roster. The Clippers made a move as a bridge toward the next potential deal leading into the trade deadline or next offseason. Even though that bridge may collapse behind them, the Clippers would not have moved far by staying stagnant.

The Clippers may have expressed optimism about Leonard and George feeling fully healthy. They completed training camp without any restrictions. Leonard enters his second complete season since having off-season surgery to treat the ACL in his right knee. Though the Clippers hardly expected either player to log a full 82-game season, however, it would also have been foolish for them to think Leonard and George could stay consistently healthy.

By acquiring Harden, the Clippers implicitly acknowledged they need more guardrails surrounding their two stars. If nothing else, Harden’s presence will relieve some of the workload Leonard and George would have assumed otherwise without a proven playmaker.

The Clippers have often touted the team’s depth for making the best of their injury-riddled seasons. Yet, they also experienced roster redundancy with a surplus of wing players.

The Clippers valued Nicolas Batum’s leadership and KJ Martin’s potential, but they already had limited playing time for Robert Covington and Marcus Morris Jr. Despite all of those losses, the Clippers still have enough dependable scorers (Terrance Mann, Norman Powell, Westbrook) and bigs (Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee) so that the Clippers don’t simply have three stars playing with teammates on veteran’s minimum deals.

No doubt, Lue will face challenges with how to manage Harden and Westbrook. After forging a strong bond for three seasons in Oklahoma City (2009-12), Harden hardly enjoyed the same symmetry with Westbrook in Houston. They showed mixed results with sharing ball-handling duties. Harden preferred playing isolation sets at a plodding pace. Westbrook preferred to run up and down the court. Westbrook eventually soured on Harden’s training habits.

Yet, the Clippers can manage this dynamic much better than Houston could. Westbrook doesn’t make as much in salary as he did with the Rockets, meaning they have more roster reinforcements to safe guard against both of each other’s weaknesses. The Clippers also have additional star players to hold Harden more accountable. And as shown in the locker room before the game, Westbrook enthusiastically embraced Harden as a long-time friend.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers
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Westbrook smiled when he declined to comment about the Harden trade before expressing appreciation for how the Clippers have embraced him since acquiring him on the buyout market shortly after the Lakers traded him to the Utah Jazz. That could help Westbrook become more amenable toward adjusting his role.

“Just playing my position, simple as that,” Russell Westbrook said generally about his role. “I’ve been a point guard since I’ve been in this league, and always will be. I would say I’m pretty good at that position since I’ve been in the league. I’m grateful that Coach trusts me to be able to run these guys and I’m that Paul, Kawhi and everyone else around here allows me to play my position and try to make the game easy for them.”

For those wondering why James Harden keeps getting his wish after burning bridges with his past teams? Well, it’s a fair point. When people show you who they are, believe them. Though Harden’s inconsistent professionalism and play does not reflect well on his character, they are rooted in specific circumstances.

Harden wanted out of the Rockets after they basically blew up the roster with allowing its general manager (Daryl Morey), head coach (Mike D’Antoni), star teammate (Westbrook) and key role players (Tucker, Austin Rivers) to go elsewhere.

Harden soured on Brooklyn after he became frustrated with Irving’s lack of availability for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Harden requested the Sixers to trade him after realizing Morey would not reward him with a handsome extension despite taking a paycut last summer to help the front office upgrade the team’s roster.

No one should be naive that Harden won’t ruffle feathers again amid any frustration with his role or environment. Here’s a safe guess, though, that the Clippers’ involved owner (Steve Ballmer), savvy front office (Lawrence Frank), innovative coach (Lue) and hard-working stars (Leonard, George) will ensure Harden stays better in line amid a better environment.

Will that mean the Clippers will cash in their chips? Maybe not. But going all in gives them their one last hope to strike it big.

Mark Medina is an NBA insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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