It’s been too damn long since we did a mailbag covering LA Clippers questions. Naturally, I have several James Harden questions. It appears you did, too.
There were some questions I could not get to in this mailbag: front office job security (there were plenty of promotions there this offseason, but it’s a make-or-break year for everyone under chairman Steve Ballmer), the biggest Clippers rivals (if rivalries are made in the playoffs, it is shaping up to be the Phoenix Suns), Intuit Dome updates (can confirm that it is coming together), and what I’d do with City Edition jerseys (in short, I’d freeze that whole project unless a team is actually re-doing their identity).
With the preseason over for the Clippers, now is a good time to address the questions that all seem to come back to a player three time zones away (or two, if he’s chilling in Houston). Let’s dive in then.
Editor’s note: Questions have been slightly edited for clarity and length.
James Harden, the 76ers, the Clippers and Terance Mann: trade talks and ‘frustration’
Why aren’t the Clippers more concerned with acquiring a talented wing instead of chasing James Harden? Why aren’t (Kyle) Kuzma, (Jerami) Grant, or Tobias Harris thrown around more in trade talks? (I know the first two can’t be put into trades until December/January but still it seems like that hole needs to be addressed) — Nathan A.
Isn’t the Clippers’ biggest weakness actually their lack of championship talent and athleticism in the frontcourt? With the package we’re using to try to get Harden, why isn’t the team trying to get bigger (as you’ve written about—the team’s lack of size at the PF) and instead potentially trading in its big wings to get a declining guard? — Anonymous U.
When last season ended, I repeatedly referenced “athletic size” as a top area to upgrade, and it did not take me long to note the power forward spot as an area of concern. I mentioned the group of Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington needed to be addressed prior to the 2023 NBA trade deadline. So why is Harden, who is very much not a power forward, the primary target here?
It comes down to talent and how the team views positions. I knew that the kind of athletic size that would be ideal to fill the roster hole the Clippers had going into free agency was not going to be filled. Now, they did add even more options to the puzzle. They drafted size, using the last pick of the first round to add Kobe Brown, but he’s not the most athletic player. They traded for a plus athlete in KJ Martin, but he’s undersized for the big position. Both players seem like they would be on the outskirts of a regular-season rotation to start the season.
The first question referred to Kyle Kuzma and Jerami Grant, neither of whom can be traded until after the In-Season Tournament since they signed new contracts this offseason. Frankly, both players are merely adequate positional fits and would cost even more to acquire, not to mention the fact that Harden is better than them. Same for Tobias Harris, other than the fact that Harris can be traded now. Both Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner would be centers on this team, and the Clippers are satisfied with Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee. And there is no indication that either of the aforementioned players on other teams a) want to be traded, or b) their teams want to trade them.
I believe there may be a bigger sweepstakes for a player like Pascal Siakam, who is in the last year of his deal with the Toronto Raptors and has actually made an All-Star game. He’s also been an All-NBA selection, unlike Harris, Kuzma, Turner or Grant. But when’s the last time Masai Ujiri traded a valuable player during the season? The Raptors always seem to keep players and see what happens in free agency.
Harden would be a Clippers target because they feel like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard could become forwards in that setup. Having Leonard be your nominal power forward may seem less than ideal considering the size of some of those players. But Leonard is a physical presence in his own right and clearly a lot better than any of the true power forward options we’re talking about here.
I’m dubious a Harden transaction happens at an ideal time or fashion, if it happens at all. But the reasoning behind such a move certainly considers the talent level on the team and the logjam at the power forward position.
Hi, Law. Jaded Clippers fan here. Give us some truthful hope about the season ahead … if there is any. What is the ceiling for this team with OR without Harden? Can we honestly expect them to be serious about the regular season? — Jake S.
Speaking of Jaded, that Aerosmith track came out more than 20 years ago. I’m still going to use the obscure reference to help your optimism, and it starts with the album that Jaded comes from: Just Push Play.
George and Leonard are about to start their first home opener together since joining the Clippers. It took them five seasons for that to happen, considering George was recovering from shoulder surgery in 2019-20, Leonard’s face was re-arranged by Serge Ibaka prior to the 2020-21 season-opening debacle against the Dallas Mavericks, Leonard was recovering from a torn ACL in 2021-22 and Leonard came off the bench to start last season against the Phoenix Suns.
It is reasonable to expect the Clippers to approach a .700 win percentage when these two play in the same game. Can they get to 50 games together? That puts you at about 35 wins right there, and you just need the Clippers to worry about the 32 games one of them will miss. Split those, and 51 wins is enough to avoid the Play-In Tournament.
I feel like the Clippers have to simply do better in the games that George and/or Leonard miss. Last year, the Clippers were 20-24 when George and/or Leonard missed a game. The supporting cast wasn’t complete enough or fresh enough. Players like Russell Westbrook and Mason Plumlee help the overall roster. But if the Clippers were able to get Harden, it would make their regular-season team better. Harden’s issues come up in the postseason, but the Clippers’ priority is to get George and Leonard healthy and figure it out from there.
It always comes down to the stars. If Tyronn Lue has those two healthy, then they can challenge any team in the West and see if things break their way for once.
Hi Law. If the Clippers do end up making the trade for Harden, it’s fairly certain that Norman Powell would be one of the pieces moved in the other direction. Who do you see stepping into the role of sixth man in this scenario — one of TMann/RoCo? Or does Westbrook move to the bench? — Rohith D.
Powell is the only Clipper currently with guaranteed money on his contract beyond 2025, and as many have pointed out, his contract combines cleanly with Morris’ and the injured Brandon Boston Jr’s. to match Harden’s deal. The Clippers would not have included Powell in a deal for Malcolm Brogdon in June, like they did with Morris, Amir Coffey and the draft pick that became Brown. But if a more ball-dominant free-throw merchant in Harden comes back, Powell could be more expendable.
If Powell were to be moved, the spotlight shifts to Bones Hyland, who had a strong preseason as an interior scorer, distributor (team-high 16 assists this preseason) and disruptor (five steals, tied Covington for the team high). The downside: Hyland missed almost all of his shots outside the paint (1-for-19) and he suffered a left ankle sprain that leaves him in doubt to start the season on time.
We’ve seen a lot of footage of a high-spirited Clippers training camp, with a lot of laughter amid all the running and drill work. Lue, Leonard and George, in particular, seem looser and more social, while also aware of the high stakes this season. To what do you attribute the joviality and accountability? — Frank S.
Last season — it was all a dream. A horrible, horrible, dream.
(Photo of Harden and Leonard: Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)