Is the fourth time a charm for James Harden?
From Houston to Brooklyn to Philadelphia and now the LA Clippers — with the former MVP setting an unofficial NBA record by asking for three trades in these past 34 months — the 34-year-old finds himself back in the City of Angels, where it all started. This is what he wanted: To return to the place where he starred at Artesia High School and join this star-studded Clippers team that has been thus far defined by its unfulfilled promise. But will it work? And why or why not?
With Harden’s Clippers debut expected to come Monday at Madison Square Garden in New York, I spoke to three NBA scouts in an attempt to get an expert’s opinion on that very question. The stakes are high for owner Steve Ballmer and his Clippers, whose core four — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Harden — can all be free agents this summer. What’s more, the Clippers are slated to open their Intuit Dome next season and would love nothing more than to hang the organization’s first banner on Day 1.
The scouts, who spend their nights studying the competition, were both cutting and complimentary in their assessment of the move and what it might mean. They were granted anonymity to allow them the freedom to be candid. The following is a lightly edited version of their views.
‘The playoffs are a big question’
“If (the goal) is a championship, (then) I don’t know,” Scout No. 1 texted. “It seems like it adds more of what they have: scoring and ballhandling. What do they do with Norman Powell and Russ now? And it takes away all of their small-ball options, which is how they want to play. It will certainly lead to a lot of regular season wins, but the playoffs is a big question.
“It’s an insurance play for if Kawhi or PG go down, you still have scoring. I’m very curious about what they do moving forward because Harden (who will be a free agent this summer) wanted to come to L.A. to get paid. He is going to ball out this season, but is a fourth team going to roll the dice on Harden and expect a different result?
Short term 👍
Long term 😬”
‘I think they needed to do it’
“I think it’s an interesting trade and I think it does help the Clippers. …” Scout No. 2 said by phone. “You get a guy like Harden for a couple of first-round picks. …”
To review, the Clippers gave up Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr., Kenyon Martin Jr., a 2026 first-round pick (from the Clippers, via the Oklahoma City Thunder), a 2028 first-round pick, two second-round picks and a pick swap.
“That 2028 (first-rounder) might come back to hurt them if none of those (star players) are around then,” Scout No. 2 continued. “But the scoring that Harden is going to bring, and getting a Big Three with him, George and Leonard while not giving up a whole lot, was good. You still have Terance Mann and (Ivica) Zubac, and (P.J.) Tucker (who came from the Sixers in the deal and) will give them some defense and leadership. You have Norm Powell, who is good. But I think it works. I think they needed to do it. This is their little (title) window, and I’m not sure what else they would have been able to get.
James Harden trade is all about the next steps for 76ers and Clippers
‘I just don’t see how they blend’
“Honestly, I don’t know if James fits anywhere — like any team,” Scout No. 3 said via phone. “And I don’t know how this fit is going to be. Maybe it’ll work out when the Clippers are injured and they have him playing instead of Kawhi. But for me, in the last couple of years watching James, I don’t think he has the same finishing ability. He doesn’t shoot the ball as well. He doesn’t have the same ability to get to the hole. … He’s not the same player. And I don’t think he’s willing to say, ‘I’m going to be a distributor’ — which he’s very good at. But I don’t think he’s willing to step into that role.”
As I told this scout in our conversation, this is counterintuitive at face value. Harden led the league in assists last season and helped Sixers star Joel Embiid win the MVP, so why would anyone think he’s not willing to play that role? The skepticism has everything to do with the Houston Rockets subplot from last summer.
When it looked as if Harden might be heading back to Houston in free agency, there was a strong sense from the Rockets’ side that he wanted to be a No. 1 scoring option again. And while that’s an understandable sentiment for any three-time scoring champ to have, it’s also widely seen as a sign of his mindset going forward. The Rockets — and more specifically, first-year coach Ime Udoka — chose not to bring Harden back.
As Harden now heads to the Clippers, the question of sacrifice that was so pivotal with the Sixers last season is front and center yet again. Only Harden knows how he truly feels, but he has made it clear that the lack of appreciation for his sacrifice in Philly was the driving force behind his choice to ask out. It’s fair to wonder, then, whether that might influence the way he handles these delicate Clippers duties.
At his introductory news conference with the Clippers on Thursday, Harden certainly made it sound as if he was hoping to return to his old ways. His relationship with coach Tyronn Lue will be crucial.
“I think the game, and I’m a creator on the court,” Harden told reporters on Thursday while discussing his frustrations during his Sixers tenure with former coach Doc Rivers. “So if I’ve got a voice to where I can (say), ‘Hey coach, I see this. What do you think about this? Then it’s like, ‘All right, bet.’ Someone that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me.
“I’m not a system player. I am a system — you know what I mean? Somebody that can have that dialogue with me and understand and move forward and figure out and make adjustments on the fly throughout games, that’s all I really care about. It’s not about me scoring the basketball, scoring 30, 40 points. I’ve done that already.”
James Harden’s full remarks when saying he is “a system.” pic.twitter.com/C67LT665KH
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) November 2, 2023
Even still, Scout No. 3 doesn’t see it working.
“I just don’t see all four of them on the floor at the same time,” Scout No. 3 said. “You know Russ has had a problem with coming off the bench (with the Lakers). So is James coming off the bench? Are they going to play all four of them plus Zubac? I just don’t see how they blend together because (Harden’s) taking shots away from somebody — unless it’s just a security blanket of ‘We have not been healthy for the last three years and this at least gives us Russ and James on games where we don’t have Kawhi and Paul.”
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The Clippers are widely regarded as the “load management” industry leaders. And Leonard, who has battled serious injuries since the later stages of his San Antonio days and was still regaining his health throughout most of his one season in Toronto, is held up as the prime example for the controversial cause.
Since coming to the Clippers in the summer of 2019, he has appeared in an average of 55.3 games in the three seasons in which he suited up and missed the entire 2021-22 campaign because of a torn ACL. George has only averaged 47.3 games played in his four seasons with the Clippers.
“I don’t know, man. I just don’t understand it from a Clippers standpoint,” Scout No. 3 said. “Maybe they’re in a throw-everything-out-there (mode) because they have been unsuccessful the last couple of years. It’s what happens when all of them are together that doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s the issue. But if Kawhi is playing 30 games and Paul’s playing 50 games (because of injuries), and James is playing 70 games and Russ is playing 80, then you are filling in those gaps.
“So you get through the regular season with mixing and matching of lineups because nobody’s healthy. Now everybody’s gonna be healthy for the playoffs, and then it’s going to turn into, ‘Well, what the hell do we do now?’ We have no identity. We’ve been just piecemealing this season together because you guys aren’t playing here, you’re not playing here. But now it’s playoffs, everybody wants to play and everybody wants a bigger role because it’s playoffs. I don’t know. Sometimes people try to load up the talent instead of building a roster that complements the pieces.”
‘They’ve got to figure that out’
“Leonard and George have been injury-prone, and so has Harden,” Scout No. 2 said. “But if they can get through some periods where you’ve got two of those three guys and still pile up wins, then that’s gonna help them. You get to the playoffs, and you’ve got those three guys and Zubac and Tucker and Powell, and you’ve still got Westbrook. You’ve got seven, eight guys. I think this helps try and get them over that hump and gives them the most talent and the best chance to win.”
For all the focus on the early years that Harden and Westbrook spent together in Oklahoma City, Scout No. 3 made the point that their more recent Rockets chapter is likely the more applicable history here. It only lasted one season, with the Rockets going 44-28 in the 2019-29 campaign before falling in the second round to the Lakers in five games.
By the following November with then-coach Mike D’Antoni having headed for the exits and Daryl Morey going to Philadelphia, Westbrook was asking for a trade before eventually landing in Washington. It was widely known that he was frustrated with the lack of perceived accountability within that Rockets culture. Meanwhile, Harden would force his way out and land with the Nets soon thereafter.
But the dynamics on this team will be much different. Leonard and George are the primary stakeholders, so to speak, having welcomed Westbrook and Harden into their locker room. Nonetheless, league rules still mandate that each team plays with only one ball at a time. Thus, questions about how the offense will function will remain.
In terms of the Clippers’ shot distribution pre-Harden, this is how it looks through five games (top six only, per NBA.com/stats). The Clippers are 3-2 thus far, with the league’s second-best net rating (11.6).
- Leonard: 18.2 shots per game (23 points)
- George: 16.8 shots (28.8 points)
- Westbrook: 12.4 shots (15.2 points)
- Bones Hyland: 11.2 shots (13.6 points)
- Norm Powell: 9.8 shots (14 points)
- Zubac: 7.8 shots (11.6 points)
“(Harden) probably doesn’t fit with Westbrook — or they’ve got to figure that out,” Scout No. 2 said. “Harden is going to start, and maybe Westbrook’s your change-of-pace guy off the bench or in different lineups. So that’ll be an interesting thing, just because Westbrook’s got a big personality. And then you’ve got these other three guys who will play in front of him and get a majority of the shots. Harden will be able to get shots.
“I was just looking at their first three games, and they’ve played two bad teams, but George and Kawhi got like 17 shots a game and then Bones Hyland was their next guy with 11. So Harden will gobble up a lot of those. And I think even though Russ is a different personality, I think he’ll buy in. He always brings it. I’m sure he’ll be in some lineups with some combination with those other guys, but you start with him coming off the bench and then depending on how things are, he’ll be in there with all those guys.”
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‘What are you telling James to be?’
“The Clippers are letting Russ be Russ,” Scout No. 3 said. “The Lakers wanted to control him, but the Clippers are just like ‘Be Russ.’ So now if you’re telling him to be Russ, what are you telling James to be? You can’t have both of them on the floor at the same time. Like, you can’t, because the other two guys — who are your most important pieces — aren’t getting shots. So that’s where we’ll see how good Ty Lue is, right? He’s gonna have to figure this thing out.
“What role has (Harden) accepted in this trade? He’s been wanting to go to the Clippers, but has he said, ‘Yeah, I see my role here and I’m happy with it?’ ”
‘This is where he wanted to go’
“From the outside looking in, I would imagine that he’s going to be bought in,” Scout No. 2 said. “I mean, this is where he wanted to go. He’s played with good players before, but he got what he wanted and he’s gonna be with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and this is his chance to probably shut some of that up and go out and just play.”
(Photo of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George: Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images)