When the LA Clippers announced the acquisition of James Harden on Nov. 1, the team was 3-1 and about to visit the Los Angeles Lakers, a team they had beaten 11 times in a row. Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank made it clear what Harden, the NBA’s 2022-23 assists leader and the 2018 MVP, was supposed to provide.
Harden was being brought in to elevate the Clippers’ main stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, provide insurance as a playmaker along with Russell Westbrook, help get a consolidated, more balanced roster easier shots, and provide a franchise at a delicate timeline point the inspiration that comes with being a local product. As far as championship aspirations are concerned, the goal was understood.
“With James, really what we looked at was it was an opportunity to maximize Kawhi and Paul and to give us the highest chance to win,” Frank said last week. “It’s our responsibility not just to Kawhi and Paul and to the coaching staff and to the people in the organization, but to our fans to look at every single way where we can raise our ceiling. James is a ceiling raiser.”
It is Nov. 10, and the Clippers have not won a game since. Harden debuted after the Clippers lost in overtime to the Lakers and had four days off. The Clippers lost both games in the Big Apple, losing road games to the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets while getting outscored by 33 points in Harden’s first two games with the franchise.
Friday night, the Clippers looked like they would break through in their first In-Season Tournament game against the Dallas Mavericks. Harden responded to his notorious discomfort of taking catch-and-shoot 3s by drilling two of those shots as part of a 31-19 first-quarter lead.
But within three minutes of the start of the second half, the Clippers had Terance Mann at center in place of Ivica Zubac with LA’s four other stars, and Luka Dončić was completing a 3-point play that gave the Mavericks an insurmountable 88-56 lead — a 44-point turnaround. Dallas beat the Clippers 144-126, the most points allowed by the Clippers in a non-overtime loss since January 2017. It sent the Clippers to their fourth straight loss, and third straight with Harden.
The issue for the Clippers isn’t Harden’s individual play, as he is shooting 54.2 percent from the field with 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.0 3s. The quartet of Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, K.J. Martin and Marcus Morris Sr. averaged a combined 10.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 4.0 steals, and 1.9 3s before being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. And unlike in the games in the boroughs, the Clippers were at their best Friday in Dallas when Harden was in the game, at least among the other stars.
But Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue has to deal with an extended losing streak for the third time in this calendar year, in part due to the adjustment of a piece in his backcourt. When the Clippers lost their sixth straight game in January, Lue had to reconfigure the lineup and permanently remove Reggie Jackson as a starting point guard, while George faced a multi-week injury absence. The Clippers lost the first five games of the Westbrook era after the 2023 All-Star break, but all of the principals involved in getting Westbrook to the Clippers were committed to making it work, both on and off the floor.
That commitment is being tested, along with all of the ways Lue wanted to approach this season. Lue wanted to put in a cut-heavy offense; Synergy charted the Clippers as having only four plays that ended with cuts Friday night in Dallas, despite averaging 8.0 per game overall. Lue wanted to get a smaller Clippers team to run — the Clippers have been outscored by 9.2 points per game on the fast break and they’re the oldest team in the West.
Lue specifically said he needed the Clippers to have a top-five defense; the Clippers held up defensively when going up against the anemic Knicks offense (at least before the turnovers) and a star-less Nets offense. But once Lue rolled out a lineup of Westbrook, Bones Hyland, Norman Powell, Mann and P.J. Tucker to end the first quarter, the game became target practice for Dallas. The Westbrook, Powell and Tucker group was outscored 26-6 in only six first-half minutes on the floor, bleeding shots up, down and across the floor.
All of the things Lue focused on in training camp have to be reupholstered early in the regular season, while other teams are more polished. But Lue’s incumbent stars are being negatively affected early on after the Harden trade, and it puts pressure on all of their future situations. Leonard is supposed to be the No. 1 option out of the four stars, but this is a team that requires him to be the power forward, and the Clippers have allowed the fourth-most offensive rebounds this month. George has shot 27.9 percent from the field in games with Harden, including 17.4 percent from 3 despite more than half of his shots coming from deep.
Neither Leonard nor George have contract extensions, but at least they don’t face the scrutiny of Westbrook, who still gets mentioned as a bench candidate despite his effectiveness as a Clipper. Before the Harden trade, Westbrook was establishing himself as the team leader and primary point guard. Westbrook’s on-ball role has been compromised, and Friday night’s Lakers tribute of a lineup was the latest indication of the struggle Lue has to make rotations work in the Harden era. Lue likely would not choose to bench Westbrook, which would leave the front office to evaluate Westbrook’s situation if the fit doesn’t clean up.
And if anything, the bench has been in an even worse rhythm than the stars. Powell hit rock bottom Friday, with the Clippers getting outscored by 26 points in his 8.5 second-quarter minutes; Powell didn’t take a shot in the entire quarter and hasn’t been to the free-throw line this week. Hyland didn’t play in the second half in Brooklyn and is sixth in the ballhandling pecking order. Mann went from being named a starter to returning to a completely different roster as a reserve after spraining his ankle before the season opener, just another role change in a Clippers list full of them.
Tucker has made one basket in 59 minutes as a Clipper, with the team getting outscored by 34 points in those minutes. Mason Plumlee sprained his MCL in New York, robbing the Clippers of a second-unit center; Tucker is too small for the role given his deficiencies as a shooter and mover, two-way contract Moussa Diabaté is too green, and rookie Kobe Brown hasn’t been prepared to play the center spot after being trained as a forward this preseason. The backup center is an issue, but this has been a rough start for starting center Zubac, who has a 3:13 assist-turnover ratio and has either been overwhelmed by like-size centers or subbed out early against perimeter-heavy teams like Brooklyn or Dallas.
This is an issue now because the Clippers wanted to be better in the regular season, to compete and give themselves the best chance to be a top team in the West on the way to being a contender. Forget skipping steps, this team needs to find the staircase. Perhaps a visit Sunday from the 1-8 Memphis Grizzlies provides a panacea. Except that game is a matinee, a notoriously rough spot for the Clippers. And Sunday’s game comes in the middle of a stretch where they play four games in four different time zones.
It could always be worse for the Clippers. The stars are healthy, which was the other reason the Harden trade was made. Frank probably doesn’t make a move to consider Harden if Leonard and George were locks to play a respectable number of games due to their durability concerns.
The only way that this works is if all of the principals remain committed to each other. Lue has to keep damaging rotations off the floor. George has to rediscover the bully he vowed to be before Harden’s arrival. Leonard has to lead on the floor despite the fact that there is no other rotation forward off the bench with length left to help him rebound and defend. Westbrook has to lead off the floor despite renewed questions about how the team can set him up to succeed with another ballhandler.
And Harden asked for this. He heard the boos and taunts on the road. He responded to criticism when he was introduced after the trade. The fears of Westbrook’s arrival splintering the team in February were allayed by Westbrook’s intangibles. Those same fears are renewed now that Harden is here. Vibes have been replaced by sacrifice. It is on Harden to maintain his commitment to the group he requested to be a part of.
(Top photo of James Harden on the bench in the second half of the NBA In-Season Tournament game Friday in Dallas: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)