The Los Angeles Clippers finally showed strong team chemistry. Then, James Harden arrived.
After joining his fourth team in three years, Harden vowed he will do whatever it takes to win an NBA title. Then, Harden raised doubts on whether he can become the team’s missing championship piece.
The Clippers (3-7) enter Friday’s in-season tournament game against the Houston Rockets (6-3) with a six-game losing streak. They have lost all five of their games since Harden joined the group. And neither Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George nor Russell Westbrook have looked remotely comfortable playing together.
It all begs the question. Should the Clippers have even made this trade?
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his star players have all preached patience for obvious reasons. It will take time for everyone to become comfortable with each other. It will take time for Lue to find the right rotations, both with their star players and the teammates around them. It will take time before every player finds the appropriate mix of aggressiveness without becoming selfish and the right amount of team workout without becoming passively deferential.
Most NBA teams need to play 20 regular-season games before making any big-picture assessments. Why should that change for integrating a new player without a training camp? Here’s why.
Their talent alone should still be able to produce wins, at least against a Memphis Grizzlies team that ranks last in the Western Conference. Each player has enough experience with adjusting their role both on and off the ball. And the Clippers made the philosophical decision to disrupt their early-season success, continuity and chemistry because of Harden’s star power.
Instead, we have seen the following developments. Leonard hasn’t become the focal part of the offense. George has tried embracing the role of both a star player and glue guy with mixed success. Harden appears inefficient when has the ball and passive when he doesn’t.
Same thing for Westbrook, who already struggled with the Lakers with sharing ball-handling duties with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Though he has yet to change his starting lineup, Lue has staggered Harden and Westbrook apart so that both can have primary ball-handling duties with their respective unit. It still hasn’t worked.
All of which makes it fair to question why the Clippers made this deal in the first place. Here’s the complicated wrinkle to this, though. The Clippers may not have fared any better had they declined pursuing Harden.
Assessing the Los Angeles Clippers with James Harden
Sure, we can’t discount the Clippers’ 3-1 start and their strong team chemistry. The Clippers surely appreciate that Leonard and George are finally healthy after nursing overlapping injuries for the past four seasons. Judged on their injury history, however, it seems foolish to bet that both players can play through most of the 2023-24 regular season.
The Clippers’ championship fortunes have always rested on their health and availability. But which party is most equipped to absorb such a loss?
We’ve already seen in the past four seasons that the Clippers’ depth alone will do little other than help them stay competitive. Harden theoretically could help the Clippers absorb such an absence with his distinguishable scoring and playmaking. Unlike when the Lakers acquired Westbrook in the 2021-22 season for the same reasons to help James and Davis, the Clippers still have enough shooting and defensive depth to relieve the pressure off Harden.
Understandably that means little in the short term since the Clippers can’t even win with all of their star players available. It also undercuts the Clippers’ hopes to treat the regular-season with more importance than spending the past four years prioritizing the team’s health at the expense of having productive practices. By stressing patience with integrating Harden, the Clippers are implying that the regular season doesn’t matter as much as they suggested it would.
Fair. But the Clippers made this trade early in the season so that they would have time to iron out roles before spending the second half of the season strictly focused on stacking wins. They would’ve done it earlier in the summer, but the Philadelphia Sixers didn’t show as much urgency with completing the Harden deal. To the Clippers’ credit, they also wanted to hold onto a young and promising wing player (Terance Mann).
As for Harden’s own intentions? It’s telling that the Lue has implored him to become more aggressive and that he should feel comfortable with primarily running the offense. Though Harden shouldn’t have been as tepid, that’s a much better problem for the Clippers to deal with than needing to address Harden’s high volume shooting. That passivity reveals Harden’s respect for team dynamics and hope to avoid giving into his selfish tendencies that plagued him with past teams.
That shouldn’t excuse the Clippers’ current struggles. But they at least have the awareness that they will need to fix these issues soon. Their slim title chances depend on it.