NEW YORK — On their first cross-country flight together as LA Clippers teammates, Paul George and James Harden decided to spend some of the five-plus hour flight by going head-to-head in some friendly competition. The stars picked up the controllers to play some Madden NFL 24, and the off-the-court bonding began.
“He got me a few games,” Harden said of George, an avid gamer.
On Monday night when Harden makes his debut with his new team against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Clippers will get their first glimpse at whether their blockbuster trade will be a hit. Will their new lineup put up video-game-like numbers, or will the Clippers experience too many glitches and crash?
On paper, the quartet of George, Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook is as gifted as any foursome the NBA has seen. This is only the fifth team in NBA history to feature four players who entered the season with at least five career All-NBA selections, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When asked if there is another team he could compare them to, Clippers coach Ty Lue paused before thinking about his first coaching stint in the league when he was an assistant on the 2011-12 Boston Celtics.
“Four scorers?” Lue said. “You had Ray [Allen], Paul [Pierce], KG [Kevin Garnett]. But [Rajon] Rondo was more of a facilitator. So you know Russ can be that for us, but Russ can also score the basketball. I would have to look back and see four guys that you know can do both things.
“So I’m not really sure.”
No one is quite certain how this will go. There are almost as many questions facing Lue and the Clippers as the 32 combined All-Star appearances between Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook.
Why did the Clippers add Harden?
The Clippers view Harden as “a ceiling raiser.” After watching other teams like the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics make big moves this offseason to try to catch the defending champion Denver Nuggets, the Clippers knew they had to follow suit to help their stars.
The Clippers believed they could contend for a title when Leonard and George are healthy, but the team has simply fallen short of its lofty title expectations ever since those two arrived in 2019.
The franchise has searched for an elite playmaking point guard ever since Chris Paul was traded in 2017. While they have Westbrook, the Clippers view Harden as an elite passer who can also create his own shot while facilitating opportunities for Leonard and George.
Harden led the league in assists last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and has averaged at least 10 dimes in each of his past three seasons. The Clippers are counting on Harden creating opportunities for his teammates.
“James is a superstar,” George said. “Another playmaker. Another scorer, leader. Really happy to have him here.
” … It’s not every day you get a chance to get a guy of his ability that wants to come and play on this team. It was worth taking a swing on, and so we felt that he could help us.”
Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said the team looked at Harden’s tenure with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with the Brooklyn Nets, even as short-lived as it was because of injuries, to see how the point guard would fit in L.A.
What the Clippers saw was a superstar who has adapted his game to play along other elite scorers.
“Even though those guys maybe played 16 games together, you saw a transformation,” Frank said of Harden’s season and a half in Brooklyn. “James [has] been a scoring champ, the assists champ, the MVP, Sixth Man of the Year.
“And then in Brooklyn, you saw at different moments of the game … he’d be strictly a playmaker, and then at times when he’d be with the second unit, he was more of a scorer. And then his first full year in Philly, you saw the pride he took [in helping] Joel Embiid be the MVP.”
How will Harden fit and help out Leonard and George?
Lue had a four-day break between games to use as sort of a minicamp to integrate Harden and fellow new arrival P.J. Tucker. Harden requested a lot of film to watch during that time while going through 5-on-5 and multiple scrimmages to ramp up mentally and physically.
Lue has been coy on his starting five against the Knicks, but it’s expected he will start Westbrook, Harden, George and Leonard together with Ivica Zubac. After seeing how they open the game together, the coach also could stagger his stars or see how the second unit might operate with Harden running the show.
He also could experiment with Harden working in the two-man game with Leonard or George. Harden excelled in the two-man game with Embiid in Philadelphia and throughout his career, Harden has been a player who utilizes on-ball screens. Last season, he was the ball handler for 66.1 on-ball screens per 100 possessions, the highest mark in the NBA, per Second Spectrum.
Harden can also be a space creator for Leonard and George. Last season, Harden was double teamed on 18.6 possessions per game, second only to Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic in the NBA, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That could free up Leonard and George — both ranked in the top 10 in percentage of shots that were heavily contested among players to take 500-plus field goal attempts last season, according to Second Spectrum.
This season, Lue placed an emphasis on ball movement and cutting. But now the Clippers have four of the top 12 players in isolation possessions over the past 10 seasons with Harden leading that pack. While Harden isn’t the isolation player he once was, he averaged 8.7 isos per game last season, according to Second Spectrum. The Clippers ranked third in isolations per 100 possessions last season but ranked in the bottom half of the league in efficiency on isolation plays.
Along with integrating Harden, Lue will also have to continue to:
Get Leonard to his midrange spots
Keep George in the All-Star rhythm he has been in to open this season
Make sure Westbrook stays engaged and in attack mode
“I think we still have to come in kind of like with a selfish mindset,” Leonard explained. “Meaning we can’t look over our shoulder and say this guy is going to win the game [tonight], or this guy’s going to win the game for us. We still have to step on that floor like we out there by ourselves and [remain aggressive].
“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, and we’ll see what happens.”
Once Terance Mann returns, Lue will have another potential lineup decision to make. Mann was named a starter for the opener before he suffered an ankle injury. The guard participated in practice on a limited basis Friday and is day-to-day. Lue values Mann’s versatility, defense and ability to fit and complement stars like Leonard and George.
Lue has a reputation for being a players’ coach and one of the best at adapting on the fly. That could benefit Harden, who created headlines last week when he said the Sixers didn’t utilize his strengths, making him feel like he was on “a leash.”
“I think the game and I’m a creator on the court,” Harden said. “So if I got a voice to where I can, ‘Hey, Coach, I see this. What you think about this?’ Somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me. I’m not a system player. I am a system. You know what I mean?
“So somebody that can have that dialogue with me, understand, move forward, figure out and make adjustments on the fly throughout the course of games, that’s all I really care about. It’s not about me scoring a basketball, scoring 34 points. I’ve done that already.”
Harden: ‘I’m not a system player, I am a system’
Newly acquired Clippers guard James Harden clarifies his comments of being on a “leash” in Philadelphia.
Third time’s a charm for Westbrook and Harden? Will it work now?
Westbrook and Harden have known each other since they were kids growing up in L.A. Now they are the first MVP duo to play together on three different teams. Drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook and Harden are the only players in NBA history to win multiple scoring and assist titles.
But in their previous stint together with the Houston Rockets in 2019-20, the two were able to reach only the second round of the postseason before falling in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Orlando, Florida, bubble. Westbrook was traded to the Washington Wizards after that.
“I don’t know if that applies to this situation,” said Tucker, who was on that Houston team with Westbrook and Harden. “Russ and James [have known] each other for years, so they’re familiar with each other, playing with each other. I don’t know if it’s the same [experience this time], especially with Kawhi and PG.
“I think this team is kind of a totally different type of dynamic [for them].”
Westbrook embraced both of his former (and now new) teammates when they arrived to Crypto.com Arena last Tuesday, and he joked with Harden.
It remains to be seen how much Lue will play both of his point guards on the floor at the same time, but Lue said he envisions keeping the ball in Westbrook’s hands during those instances.
“Just having James more off the ball, running our ways and quicks and coming off pin-downs and let Russ more handle so he can engage his defender,” Lue said Sunday. “That’s what we talked about the last two or three days when they’re on the floor together, just making sure James is off the ball and let Russ be more of the point guard.”
Lue might want to keep pairing Westbrook and George, who is off to his best start since the 2018-19 season when he was an MVP candidate and averaged 28 points and 8.2 rebounds alongside Westbrook in Oklahoma City. In five games this season, George is averaging 28.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and 51.2% shooting from behind the arc. He looks very comfortable playing alongside Westbrook, whom George implored the Clippers to sign during the All-Star break after the point guard was bought out of his deal by the Utah Jazz.
Westbrook is averaging 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 3.8 turnovers this season, and his leadership, energy and hustle are still traits the Clippers will need even with Harden on board. Even as a starter, Westbrook also could be an option to run the second unit as well.
If Lue eventually decides the team is better with a star coming off the bench, Westbrook has the most recent experience as a sixth man. But that could be a difficult and risky decision for Lue. As evidenced by his game and demeanor, Westbrook seems much happier than when he came off the bench for the Lakers in 2022-23.
It also remains to be seen which lineup Lue finishes games with.
“It’ll be a process,” Westbrook said when repeatedly asked how the Clippers will bring everything together. “I don’t have the answer. I don’t know, I don’t predict the future. … But it’s going to be a process.
“It’s going to be ups and downs, going to be good games, bad games. It’s not just going to come together and mesh and we’re going to be perfectly fine. That’s unrealistic expectations for everybody. The realistic expectations [is] it’s going to be a process. I don’t have the answer what that is.”
Will the L.A. connection help the star quartet?
One bond the four stars share is that they are all from the Los Angeles area and had strong desires to return home to play for the Clippers.
The Clippers believe the players’ shared goal of winning a ring at home in front of family and desire to remain in Los Angeles will help smooth out any potential issues among this fellowship of Southern California stars.
“We felt that we all could figure it out,” George said of the four stars discussing how this will work. “We could play around each other. And what better story to be told than four Southern Cal guys do [what has] never been done before and be champions. We got a lot of work to do, but we’re all very hopeful that we can figure this thing out.”
All four players have something to prove. Leonard and George want to show that they can stay healthy, win it all and earn long-term extensions. Westbrook has found a new home and wants to prove his critics were wrong and that he can still play at an All-Star level.
As for Harden, he said he has “everything” to prove after his third trade in four seasons. He wants to show he is still an elite player who can fit in with other superstars while dispelling the negative narratives surrounding him after the Sixers’ turmoil.
“I’m back home,” Harden said. “The comfort level of me being back around family and then having some really good players on this team.
“And then, basically all four dudes from California. This is a unique story.”