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James Harden Will Make or Break the Clippers

Los Angeles’s risk could pay off big time, but only if the right version of the guard shows up to play.

Lawrence Frank believes. Addressing reporters Thursday, Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, explained why he sees James Harden as a difference-maker.

“James is a ceiling-raiser,” Frank said.

Paul George is in.

“[It’s] not every day you get a chance to get a guy of his ability,” George said.

Kawhi Leonard, too.

“He's one of the best players to step on an NBA floor,” Leonard said.

The deal is done, the dust has settled and now it’s time to figure out whether this Crock-Pot of talent in Los Angeles will work. Harden landed in town Wednesday, bringing 20 points, 10 assists and more baggage than the underbelly of a Boeing 747 with him. It’s a trade that will begin a new era of Clippers basketball … or be the final blow that ends one.

Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden reacts to his three pointer against the Brooklyn Nets during the third quarter in game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.

What version of Harden will the Clippers get?

Want to be excited? There are reasons. At 34, Harden is still an All-Star-level player. He led the NBA in assists last season. He averaged 20 points for Philadelphia in the playoffs. For months the Clippers have been searching for another playmaker. They liked Malcolm Brogdon. They loved Jrue Holiday. Harden, at least offensively, is better than both.

And they need it. Look up fragile in the dictionary. There’s a Clippers logo next to it. Entering this season, Leonard and George had played 142 games in their five years together. In them, Los Angeles is 96–46. But the two have played in only 38% (118 of 308) of the Clippers’ regular-season games and 65% (24 of 37) of playoff games. Last season the duo played 38 games together. When L.A.’s season ended in Phoenix, neither was on the floor.

In the regular season, Harden is injury insurance.

In the playoffs, on paper, he’s as good a third option as a team can get.

And the Clippers believe Harden will fit. They saw him do it (briefly) in Brooklyn, where Harden joined Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and (briefly) formed an incredibly potent offense. They saw it in Philadelphia, where Harden changed his game (again) to mesh with Joel Embiid’s. Harden described his time on the floor in Philly as playing “[on] a leash.” L.A. doesn’t see its situation as quite so constricting, but the team is banking on Harden’s ability to adapt.

“He has an elite skill set, and all he cares about is one thing,” Frank said. “He wants to win a championship for the L.A. Clippers. He wants to be part of something bigger than himself. He’s had all the individual awards. He’s about doing something really special.”

Is he? There was confidence in Frank’s voice, but organizationally there can be anything but. For all his accomplishments and accolades, Harden has lately been about, well, Harden. He sulked in Houston, quit in Brooklyn and, when the Sixers didn’t trade him as expeditiously as he liked, held one of the more bizarre holdouts in recent memory.

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Harden wants to be in Los Angeles, but let’s be honest about why. He was born in L.A. and there’s already a tidy, made-for-(local)-TV narrative forming around how four Southern California–bred stars (Harden, George, Leonard and Russell Westbrook) have a chance to elevate a forgotten franchise. That’s fine. But Harden opted into his contract last summer to protect his Bird rights and wanted the Clippers because they are the team most likely to give him a new one. Steve Ballmer is the NBA’s richest owner, the Clippers are one of the NBA’s oldest contenders and, with the team set to move into the $2 billion Intuit Dome, there is an incentive to win with a star-laden roster.

On TNT, Shaquille O’Neal said, “I don’t know which Harden is going to show up,” and that is forever the question. On Thursday a Harden quote (“I’m not a system player. I am a system.”) went viral, but that was more a clumsy attempt to explain how he fits this Clippers roster than a declaration of defiance. Harden knows that coming to L.A. will require sacrifice, that Leonard and George are the stars, that reforming chemistry with Westbrook will be critical to the Clippers’ success.

“I was in a similar situation in Brooklyn, where you’ve got two guys that can score the basketball, create mismatches with defenses,” Harden said. “So I’m fine on the basketball, off the basketball. Pick-and-roll, catching and shooting. We have some really good coaches. We have some really unselfish players.”

But will it last? The reality is the Clippers are now led by four largely ball-dominant players, all playing for new contracts. Westbrook (in 2016-17) and Harden (in ’18-19) have two of the highest recorded usage rates in NBA history. Last season, both George and Leonard ranked in the top-40. On Thursday, Leonard warned against being too unselfish.

“We can't look over our shoulder and say ‘this guy is going to win a game, or [that] guy is going to win a game for us,’” said Leonard. “We still have to step on that floor like we out there by ourselves and from there it is going to be sacrifice. It's only one basketball and we just got to figure it out from there. But I think we all are old enough to understand what we want to do here. We'll see what happens.”

Leonard and George have learned to play together. How will their games blend with Harden’s? Will Harden, an often ambivalent defender, erode what for three of the last four seasons has been a top-10 defense? The Clippers refused to surrender Terance Mann in the Harden deal. What will his role be with Harden on board? And what about Westbrook? The video of the two crossing paths in L.A.’s locker room Wednesday was awkward, and the one COVID-19-interrupted season they spent together in Houston yielded mixed results.

“It’ll be a process,” Westbrook said. “I don’t have the answer. I don’t know. I don’t predict the future. It’s not just gonna come together, mesh and we’re going to be perfectly fine. That’s unrealistic expectations for everybody. The expectation, like I said, is that it’s going to be a process. I don’t have the answer. I don’t know what that is.”

The Clippers have taken big swings in recent years. Signed Leonard, traded for George, took a flier on Westbrook that has largely worked out. Harden is another. It will be a major success or a colossal failure. It’s hard to see anything in between.