NEW YORK – James Harden had already played 14 NBA seasons, 1,000 regular-season games, debuted for four teams and experienced two fresh starts after forcing his way out of a city while under contract.
The intrigue around Harden’s 15th pro season, his 1,001st game and first with yet another team, after demanding a trade out of another organization isn’t so much him, although he has enough talent and enough baggage to keep it interesting.
Rather, can Harden and all he brings to the Los Angeles Clippers, both on and off the court, work on a team that already has three aging stars with their own quirks?
The question won’t be answered for months, of course, when we see what happens to the Clippers in the playoffs, but the research began in earnest Monday night at Madison Square Garden with Harden finally in uniform for the 2023-24 season.
Harden, 34, a 10-time All-Star, was strong personally in his first game with L.A., but the home Knicks were the stronger team in the fourth quarter and won the game, 111-97, behind a breakout game for their own maligned star.
Harden finished with 17 points, six assists, and three rebounds in 31 minutes. He shot 6-of-9 from the field after spending the entire first quarter feeling out his veteran teammates and refraining from shooting.
Two of the Clippers’ other stars, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, were similarly productive playing next to Harden, while a third, Paul George, picked a bad night to shoot poorly.
Leonard gave the Clippers 18 points and five rebounds on 8-of-16 shooting, and Westbrook added 17 points, four assists, and four rebounds, but George shot just 2-of-11 (1-of-6 on 3s) for 10 points.
“Just getting on the same page is going to take a lot of sacrifice, we understand that,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before the game. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s not going to happen overnight, you know, And so guys have to sacrifice minutes, shots, touches. If they do that we can be a really good team.”
Julius Randle, off to a terrible start to the season shooting the ball, led the Knicks with 27 points on 9-of-21 shooting. He added 10 rebounds. R.J. Barrett returned to the lineup after a knee injury to add 26 points and Mitchell Robinson contributed 13 points and 15 rebounds.
The game was tied at 76 heading into the fourth quarter, and New York scored the first seven points with an overall run of 14-3 to start the fourth.
The Philadelphia 76ers traded Harden and P.J. Tucker to the Clippers on Nov. 1 for Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, KJ Martin, Marcus Morris Sr. two first-round picks and two second-round picks.
Harden demanded a trade from the Sixers over the summer in a contract dispute with the team’s front office. He’d previously received trades out of Houston, to Brooklyn and from the Nets to the Sixers.
In L.A. he joins Leonard and George, who have missed huge swaths of games the last few seasons due to injury, and Westbrook, who has rejuvenated his career with the Clippers after nearly two miserable seasons on the Lakers.
The Clippers lost reserve Mason Plumlee to a potentially serious knee injury in the third quarter when Randle dove into his left leg while trying to make a play on the ball. Plumlee’s left knee appeared to buckle under Randle’s weight, and Plumlee was carried to the locker room with 4:10 left in the period.
This story will be updated.
(Photo: Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)