The Los Angeles Clippers probably thought they would have a championship by now. When the franchise signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George in the summer of 2019, the Clippers put the rest of the league on notice that they were chasing championships. It felt like they had a reasonably good shot to pull it off: Leonard had just been named NBA Finals MVP with the Raptors, George was coming off a First-Team All-NBA season with the Thunder, and the organization they were joining was willingly to pay a premium to put the right supporting pieces around them.
Five years later, on the brink of this season, the Clippers finally accepted the dream had died. Too much had happened: a global pandemic interrupted their first season together, Leonard’s ACL tear sabotaged a conference finals run in 2021 and ruined 2022, and in 2023 Leonard couldn’t finish the playoffs while George never even played in the postseason. As they started year five, the Clippers came to a reasonable conclusion: they needed another big piece on the roster.
James Harden’s own journey was just as much of a roller coaster. Five years ago, Harden was one of the very best players in the NBA, leading the league in scoring for the third consecutive year with the Houston Rockets. After coming up short again in the bubble, Houston fired head coach Mike D’Antoni and Harden asked out. He’d end up on a new superteam with the Brooklyn Nets. He asked out again after two failed playoff runs, but this time his game had fallen from superstar to All-Star. He landed in Philly, and after two failed playoff runs, he asked out again, this time telling the world that his relationship with Daryl Morey was ruined and that he only wanted to play for the Clippers.
The stalemate in trade talks between the 76ers and the Clippers might have dragged on forever if ownership didn’t jump in. Now two weeks after the trade, Philadelphia and LA are headed in totally different directions: the 76ers are thriving, sitting on top of the East, and haven’t lost since Harden left. The Clippers, meanwhile, haven’t won since they made the trade. It’s only getting worse for Harden and the Clippers with each passing game.
The Memphis Grizzlies beat the Clippers, 105-101, on Sunday afternoon to extend LA’s tailspin. The Clips, who were sitting at 3-1 before the trade, are now 0-5 since making the trade, and 0-4 with Harden in the lineup.
Harden’s numbers have plummeted: 13.5 points, 4.3 assists, and five rebounds per game since joining LA. Remember, even as his game continued to slip last season in Philly, he still averaged an efficient 21 points per game while leading the NBA in assists. What we’re seeing now is a new low for a former star in every way.
With Harden on the court, the Clippers are -67, per NBA.com. With Harden off the court, the team is +19.
It’s not just that Harden’s own play is tanking, though there is that. By trading Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and K.J. Martin to get him, the Clippers created a new set of problems: their team would be smaller up front, weaker on the glass, and limited in terms of their depth. All the while, Harden would either have to figure out how to co-exist with Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup, or one of them would have to move to the bench.
The fit on the court just isn’t complementary: the starting group of Harden-Westbrook-Leonard-George-Ivica Zubac has a net-rating of -19.5 after the Grizzlies loss. The issue is the offense, with the group scoring only 87.5 points per 100 possessions, an incredibly bad mark. The Clippers simply look terrible right now, and difference with and without Harden is noticeable every night.
Clips have scored 1.32 points per possession with Harden out today .82 when he is in.
They’ve given up 1.32 points on D with him in .72 with him out.
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) November 12, 2023
The Clippers have more than 70 games to figure it out, but they should already be in panic mode. Right now, LA has three players in Leonard, Harden, and Westbrook who are accustomed to having the ball in their hands. Harden said it himself at the introductory press conference: “I’m not a system player, I am the system.”
It was a wonderful soundbite, but it’s turning into a harrowing reality for the Clippers. The Harden system isn’t working. He doesn’t have the same burst to the basket anymore, he can’t trick defenders into fouling him so easily, and his playmaking looks diminished when he’s passing to other perimeter creators instead of a monster interior scorer like Embiid. For someone who rightfully is considered one of the greatest shooters of all-time, Harden remains just a total zero as a spot-up shooter. He just isn’t easy to fit into an existing team structure.
As Harden dug his heels in all offseason on his trade request, it appears that he didn’t keep himself in top shape. Rockets Harden was a perennial MVP candidate, Nets and Sixers Harden was a perennial All-Star candidate, and Clippers Harden doesn’t even look like he belongs in the league so far.
The Clippers are all-in on this team. Leonard and George each have a player option for next season. Harden is set to be unrestricted free agent. The team doesn’t own any of its draft picks for the rest of the decade after sending out a 2027 swap, unprotected 2028 first round pick, and 2029 swap to complete the Harden deal. If they don’t figure it out soon, the Clippers’ future is even more compromised than their present.
It all comes back to Harden, and how he wants to play. For the first four years of the Leonard-George era, the Clippers lacked a high-end playmaker to juice the offense. They traded for the league’s assist leader from last season, and the offense is worse than ever. If Harden can’t make this work, the harshest takes about who he is as a player will be proven fully true.