When he ejected from the Houston Rockets in 2021, he spent his first month with the Brooklyn Nets orchestrating like an MVP candidate. When he soured on the Nets a year later, Harden hit the ground running in Philadelphia by leading the 76ers to wins in his first five games.
While the good times didn’t last in Brooklyn or Philadelphia, they haven’t even gotten started with the Los Angeles Clippers, who acquired Harden from the 76ers for Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, Marcus Morris, Kenyon Martin Jr. and a pile of draft assets last month. Indeed, Harden and the Clippers have skipped the once-reliable honeymoon period and plunged directly into the painful existential questions that swirled during his three previous stops.
The 34-year-old Harden, a Los Angeles native who went to high school roughly 25 miles from Crypto.com Arena, made his home debut for the Clippers on a Sunday afternoon to forget. Greeted by scant applause during player introductions and rows of empty seats at the 12:30 p.m. tip-off, Harden lived down to critical caricatures that paint him as a pace-killing, rhythm-ruining ball-pounder. The self-described “system” never booted up during the Clippers’ 105-101 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, who entered the game with the NBA’s worst record.
The defeat dropped the Clippers (3-6), who harbor aspirations of contending, to 0-4 since Harden’s debut for them last week. In the starkest of contrasts, Philadelphia is 6-0 since acquiescing to Harden’s offseason trade request.
After being excoriated by a Dallas television commentator for being “the problem” in a rant that went viral Friday, Harden didn’t offer much of a counterargument against Memphis. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting and got benched for most of the fourth quarter as the Clippers mounted a too-little, too-late comeback. During the second half, one exasperated fan shouted: “This is not working! Four games in a row! This is embarrassing!”
In a remarkable sign of Harden’s stilted fit, the Clippers were minus-28 in his 29 minutes and plus-24 in the 19 minutes he sat out. Despite starting four future Hall of Famers in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Harden, the Clippers fell into a 7-0 hole against the Ja Morant-less Grizzlies and trailed by 13 points at the end of the first quarter. A similar pattern played out at the start of the third quarter, when the Clippers squandered offensive possessions with poor ball movement, got pounded on the glass and gave life to an unsteady Grizzlies attack with a flood of turnovers.
When Los Angeles finally mustered real momentum early in the fourth quarter, Harden watched from the bench, waving a white towel to applaud a defensive stand. Though he checked back in for the final two minutes and promptly made a corner three-pointer to tie the score, he had another potential game-tying jumper blocked in the final minute.
The Clippers’ feisty marketing slogan this season is “Give no quarter,” but a more honest motto would be “Diminishing returns.” While a small sample size disclaimer applies, Los Angeles’s offensive rating has dropped from fourth through their first five games to 30th since Harden’s Nov. 6 debut. For the Clippers’ four age-32-or-older stars to make each other better, they must settle on a style that suits them all. If such a thing is even possible.
Harden is at his best when playing deliberately, and he loses focus without the rock. Leonard also likes to take it slow, posting up opponents to search for his patented midrange shots. Westbrook thrives off frenetic energy and crunches the court with his lack of shooting. George is the best equipped to oscillate between styles, but his prodigious athletic gifts can be lost in the shuffle because he is often accommodating to a fault. Even a charitable assessment would conclude the quartet is speaking at least two different languages.
“I think [pace] is what we haven’t figured out yet,” George said. “That’s what we’re still trying to work towards: When is good to iso, when is good to push the pace, and which units can do both? That’s really what it comes down to: How can we play a little faster knowing we have isolations and guys who play at a different pace? We’re trying to get that down.”
For Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue, the first step is playing faster. He also called on Harden to be “more selfish” because the guard has been “too polite” in his first four games with his new teammates.
“The spacing is still messed up offensively,” Lue said. “It’s a little congested in the paint. … When we get rebounds and stops, we’ve got to push it. We can’t just f—ing walk around offensively. You’ve got to get to the next action. If you don’t do that and do it hard, you’re going to get beat every night. We’re seeing those results.”
To create more room, the Clippers will probably need to remove one of their two non-shooters — Westbrook or center Ivica Zubac — from the starting lineup. Playing without a traditional center helped Harden and Westbrook coexist during their previous stint together on the Rockets, and it would enable Harden to have better driving angles so he is less reliant upon jumpers.
But going all-in on smallball comes with its own costs, which Los Angeles’s undersized second unit has learned the hard way. Trading Batum, Covington and Morris was necessary to land Harden without including Terance Mann, but doing so cost the Clippers greatly in terms of frontcourt length and versatility. Throw in back-up center Mason Plumlee’s recent knee injury, and what’s left of Lue’s bench is not imposing. The Clippers were pummeled in the paint by Grizzlies backup center Bismack Biyombo, who wasn’t even on an NBA roster as recently as Halloween.
Leonard said the Harden trade, which came just three games into the season, has left the Clippers to sort through two challenges on the fly: The stars must learn to strike a better balance on offense, and everyone must figure out how to replace the glue-guy work that had been done by Batum and Covington.
“There’s only one basketball,” Leonard said. “On any given night, one of us [stars] are going to have to do that [dirty] work, as well as the guys on the bench. Even their roles have changed. We’re all trying to figure it out.”
The clock is ticking loudly over the entire endeavor, because Leonard, George and Harden can all become free agents next summer and the Clippers will open Intuit Dome next fall. If Lue can coax respectability out of these mismatched pieces, perhaps they will all remain together when the team moves into its new, billion-dollar Inglewood digs.
It’s worth noting, though, that Harden’s three recent exits have coincided with massive organizational changes around him. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, coach Mike D’Antoni and Westbrook all left in the months before Harden’s trade to the Nets, a teardown set in motion by Harden’s desire to split with former teammate Chris Paul. Then, Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving all departed in the year after Harden’s abrupt exit blew up their “Big 3” model. And the 76ers fired coach Doc Rivers this summer shortly after Harden and Joel Embiid came up small in the playoffs again.
Given that track record of turbulence, the Clippers’ slow start feels even more ominous.
“We’ve all got positive energy,” Harden said. “Obviously, it’s tough losing games consecutively. We’re all in this thing together and we know the bigger picture. We’re not trying to lose games. We’re trying to win. That’s why it’s more frustrating because we’re all competitive and want to win.”