NEW YORK — James Harden was not in regular-season form. After a summer-long standoff with the Philadelphia 76ers, an unwavering trade request to join the Los Angeles Clippers, during which Harden did not play an exhibition game or even significant five-on-five during Sixers practices, he took to the Madison Square Garden court for his 2023-24 debut Monday. And Harden’s clunky headphones clattered to the hardwood during one repetition of his pregame warmup.
A staffer scrambled to scoop the broken pieces from along the 3-point line. Harden paused for a beat. It’s easy to tune out a stadium filling with celebrity and fanfare just beyond your peripheral vision when you can disappear between your ears. But even for a 10-time All-Star, who’s thrown up his hands and then pointed on a map and picked a new franchise three times in four seasons, the Jumbotron still ticks down from 99:00 until tipoff. So Harden went back to the exercise, taking an imaginary screen and drawing the help defense of Clippers coach Dahntay Jones, then hoisting triple after triple before he found a rhythm with the net. He grunted something, his face suggesting “finally” with each make.
Harden did not blitz the Knicks’ defense when the game arrived. Instead he was patient and probing, often resigned to the left corner, watching Kawhi Leonard or Paul George operate. His first meaningful touches were two gorgeous pocket passes to rolling Clippers center Ivica Zubac. Both plays saw Harden drifting left, his dominant hand and dominant direction, which always ran in contrast to Joel Embiid’s preferred rolling lane in Philadelphia.
Any lasting remnants of that partnership now stand firmly in the rearview. The word in the Clippers’ locker room postgame — a 111-97 loss to the Knicks after a lifeless fourth quarter — was all about process and adapting and figuring out the pieces of this new superstar puzzle. Harden looked relieved when asked by Yahoo Sports about his feeling of getting back to basketball, following such an acrimonious exit from Philadelphia and public breakup with longtime executive Daryl Morey. He blew a noticeable whiff of air between his lips and past his beard, then told the gaggle of reporters surrounding his locker: “Feel kinda weird out there, not really having a preseason game or an opportunity to participate in a full training camp, none of that. Was just out there basically winging it.”
He chuckled about his lack of conditioning, which left him gassed after his first few minutes of run.
“I was like, ‘Damn, this sh** moves fast,’” Harden said. “But I got adjusted to it. It’s gonna take me a few games to kinda get used to the pace.”
His task will be to find that footing as the Clippers’ first substitution, with Russell Westbrook remaining as the team’s nominal starting point guard, then Harden will return to contests as the engine of head coach Tyronn Lue’s attack. It seems all parties, at this early stage, are on board with that makeup while prized swingman Terance Mann remains sidelined due to an ankle injury. That way Lue can deploy Harden in the spread pick-and-roll offense in which he became a top 75 player in NBA history.
Harden should feast against plenty of opposing second units. When a reporter asked him about his ability to adjust to new teammates, having swapped teams so frequently, Harden first ribbed the notion, saying, “You make it sound so bad.” But it’s a clear part of why Harden has felt so re-empowered to change his scenery, why he feels he is an offensive system unto himself, it’s the fact Harden really can run spread pick-and-roll with one rim runner and three other NBA players and get everyone into a flow without much practice time or preseason activity at all.
He’s not all too concerned about monitoring Leonard’s shots or George’s shots or making sure the big man, Zubac, is happy with how much he’s eating. “I think for me, especially when I’m in the pick-and-roll, just generating and creating the best shot available. Whoever’s open. And the defense dictates that,” Harden said of his approach.
“Be ready to shoot,” Leonard affirmed. “He’s coming off the pick-and-roll. He can make plays. You’re usually open.”
The Clippers can simply get Harden in more high screen action when Leonard and George are off the floor. That is one obvious way to combat the low-hanging criticism of Los Angeles’ blockbuster acquisition, which claims that Harden couldn’t possibly or equitably share the ball with three other alphas, let alone Westbrook, after their failed tandem in Houston begat Harden’s recent string of trade requests all together.
And still Harden’s brilliance in his second unit solo act will require some adjustments for the Clippers’ supporting cast, particularly young guard Bones Hyland. “All training camp and the first five games, we’ve been telling our guys to make sure they cut when Kawhi and PG have been coming off the pick-and-roll to give ’em space,” Lue said. “But when James handles the basketball, try to be more spaced and just stay in our spots because he can make the pass and make the reads.”
Yet no matter what minutes or rotation pattern Lue schemes in order to optimize this loaded roster, there will be some form of “sacrifice,” Lue has repeated, with all these mouths to feed and all these creative scorers sharing the rock. It will be a similar type of sacrifice Harden often reminded reporters he underwent in Philadelphia to acquiesce to Embiid.
The Clippers want Harden to take the catch-and-shoot threes he resisted for so long yet finally attempted at a career-high clip last season in Philly. But they will do so as the organization views Harden as the missing piece to get it over the hump. The historic playmaker who can elevate Leonard and George beyond anything previously achieved — not the pronounced second fiddle to a reigning MVP candidate. To the point, Los Angeles figures are of the mind so many folks, too many, have forgotten just how dominant their new addition truly can be.