Clippers appear to be figuring it out with James Harden

When the LA Clippers traded for James Harden on Halloween, they had to know that eventually the move would be to bump Russell Westbrook out of the starting lineup. They had to know because the people who run the Clippers are not foolish — most people in the NBA world speak highly of president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, his inner circle and head coach Ty Lue — and if you’re not foolish then this was always obvious. 

Harden and Westbrook are not compatible. We saw proof of this in 2019 when they played together on the Houston Rockets, and in the years since, their respective limitations have only grown more limiting. In the 85 minutes the two have played together in LA, the Clippers have been outscored by 36 points. They’ve defended and scored at league-worst rates.

Why this is the case is obvious to anyone who’s ever watched the two of them play. Neither player is comfortable operating off the ball. For Westbrook, it’s because of his inability to shoot, which not only limits his ability to contribute, but also gums up the entire attack because of how defenders sag off him and clog the paint. For Harden, it’s either an unwillingness or lack of comfort — it depends how charitable you want to be — in making quick decisions on the catch. And that’s not even touching on both of their shall-we-say frequent indifference to the actions required when playing defense.

And yet! Guess which two players were in the starting lineup together alongside Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Harden’s Clippers debut? We can guess the why here. We saw last year during his final stint with the Los Angeles Lakers how Westbrook reacted to being booted from the starting lineup and so it’s safe to assume that the Clippers were concerned that any sort of lineup change involving Westbrook could break him. 

Why a team that has two max players under contract and just traded for James Harden would be concerned about the psyche of a player making $3.85 million this season and prioritize his feelings is curious. But the NBA’s ecosystem is a strange one, with strange principles governing its workplace rules. 

Which is why the 0-5 start to the Clippers’ James Harden Era might actually have been helpful in the long run. It gave the Clippers cover — something they clearly believed they needed — to make a lineup change. And even if Westbrook was, indeed, the one to volunteer the move to the bench — as Lue has said he did, though it’s worth pointing out that Lue didn’t seem to try convincing Westbrook otherwise, which probably tells you all you need to know — you can be sure he wouldn’t have done so if he didn’t sense desperation in the air. 

“You consider a lot of things when you lose six games in a row,” Lue told reporters Friday before the Clippers game against the Houston Rockets. That night, he rolled out his new starting lineup of Leonard, Paul George, Harden, Ivica Zubac and Terance Mann instead of Westbrook and watched as that group throttled the Rockets and then, on Monday night, the San Antonio Spurs. In 30 minutes together during this two-game win streak, they’ve outscored opponents by a blistering 38 points.

No, it’s never a good idea to react to a small sample, but this is also a result that made sense. Mann is a willing screener, passer, cutter and defender. Westbrook is none of these things, and whatever’s left of his once-MVP skills overlap with those of the Clippers stars. Mann’s, on the other hand, amplify them. 

Which, by the way, is what Harden’s was supposed to do for those of Kawhi and George. Let’s remember why the Clippers rolled the dice and brought him in. 

“It was an opportunity to maximize Kawhi and Paul and to give us the highest chance to win,” Frank told reporters after the trade. “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.”

[Russell Westbrook volunteering to come off bench was Clippers’ only good option]

As great as Leonard and George are, the Clippers still finished last season just 22nd in half-court efficiency and just 17th in overall offense. Watch any Clippers game over the past two seasons and you’d see a bunch of slow-developing, half-court sets ending in low-percentage isos — and that’s when they were lucky enough to have their stars on the floor. 

The Clippers’ hope — and belief — was that adding Harden to mix would inject their offense with some zip. “I think there was a stat where he got his teammates last year 350 open shots just by running pick and roll, by getting penetration to the paint and making plays,” Lue told reporters after the deal. “We need his passing ability. So it’d be really good for us.”

We weren’t seeing any of that in his first five games with the team. The offense actually looked stiffer than ever. The Clippers threw fewer passes per game than they did last season, according to Second Spectrum, got fewer open shots (38.8 attempts with no defender within four feet, compared to 44.3 last season) and were scoring at a bottom-five rate.  

The Clippers offense looked so much better against the Rockets and Spurs with Harden handling the reins. But that’s not to say the team’s work is done, or that Harden can revert into “I am a System” mode. The Clippers need him to inject verve into their attack, not dance with the ball at the top of the key for 15 seconds, and that means Harden has to fix his off-ball habits. He has all the tools to be dynamic in those situations. He’s a knockdown shooter who could be devastating running weak side pick-and-rolls and attacking a scrambling defense. 

None of those skills are on display in this clip:

The good news for the Clippers is that Harden knows this is a habit he needs to kick. Asked recently by a reporter what he learned in his first five games with the Clippers, Harden responded, “Shoot the catch-and-shoots. I haven’t really had catch and shoots for real since like OKC days, so the more opportunities I get — I think a pretty good percentage as well.”

The part about not getting those opportunities since his OKC days isn’t exactly true. When he was in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, his reluctance to launch catch-and-shoot 3s drove the coaching staff bonkers. The good news for the Clippers is that he does seem to be making an effort. He’s taken 15 catch-and-shoot triples in seven games, including three Monday against the Spurs, which is more than the 1.8 he hoisted per game last season, according to NBA Advanced Stats

The Clippers also have an issue on the interior. That issue is they’re thin and small, and it’s killing them on the boards and in the paint. Only eight teams are allowing opponents to rebound a higher rate of their own misses and only four are surrendering more second-chance points per 100 possessions. Backup center Mason Plumlee going down with a sprained MCL hurt. Having Westbrook and Harden guarding the point of the attack certainly isn’t helping; it’s hard to keep opponents away from the rim and off the glass when you’re scrambling to cut off attacking guards. 

Recognizing this issue, LA recently signed Daniel Theis. Theis is a nice player but if he’s your savior, are you really a threat? And while starting center Ivica Zubac is solid, he might be overmatched as a backline anchor for a would-be contender. Lue can try lineups with PJ Tucker at the 5, but Tucker, 38, is very much looking his age. 

The Clippers still have a future first-round pick to deal; given how aggressive they’ve been and how much they’ve invested in this current group, it’s fair to assume that they’re willing to use that pick to try to solve this size problem before the trade deadline. But it’s only worth doing so if this group looks like one with a real shot. 

We don’t yet know if that’s the case. But with Westbrook out of the starting lineup, at least we’ll finally be able to find out.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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