NEW YORK – On their first cross-country flight together as LA Clippers teammates, Paul George and James Harden decided to spend part of the five-plus hour flight going head-to-head in some friendly competition. The stars picked up controllers to play Madden NFL 24, and off-court encounters ensued.
“He got me a couple of plays,” Harden said of George, an active player.
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 impression of whether their blockbuster trade will be a hit. Will their new roster put up video game-like numbers, or will the Clippers experience more mistakes and crashes?
On paper, the quartet of George, Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook is as gifted as any the NBA has seen. This is only the fifth team in NBA history to have four players enter a season with at least five All-NBA selections, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
When asked if there is any other team he can compare himself to, Clippers coach Ty Lue paused before reflecting on his first time coaching in the league when he was an assistant with the Boston Celtics in 2011-12.
“Four players?” Lue said. “You had Ray (Allen), Paul (Pierce), KG (Kevin Garnett). But (Rajon) Rondo was the catalyst. So you know Russ can be that for us, but Russ can also score the basketball. You have to look back and see four guys that you know can do. both of these things.
“So I’m not really sure.”
No one is sure how this will go. There are probably as many questions facing Lue and the Clippers as the combined 32 All-Star appearances between Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook.
Why did the Clippers add Harden?
The Clippers consider Harden a “roof raiser.” After watching other teams like the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics make big moves this offseason to try and catch the defending champion Denver Nuggets, the Clippers know they have to follow up to help their stars.
The Clippers believed they could compete for the title when Leonard and George were healthy, but the team has fallen short of reaching its highest title since the two arrived in 2019.
The franchise has sought an elite playmaking point guard since Chris Paul was traded in 2017. While they have Westbrook, the Clippers look to Harden as a passer who can also create his own shot while setting up opportunities for Leonard and George.
Harden led the league in assists last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and has made at least 10 dimes in each of his past three seasons. The Clippers rely on Harden to create opportunities for his teammates.
“James is a star,” said George. “Another player. Another goalscorer, a leader. I’m very happy to have him here.
“… It’s not every day you get a chance to find a guy of his caliber who wants to come and play for this team. It was worth taking a swing, so we felt he could help us.”
Clippers basketball president Lawrence Frank said the team is looking at Harden’s time with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with the Brooklyn Nets, even for a short time due to injuries, to see how the point guard will fit in LA.
What the Clippers saw was a star who changed his game to play with other elite scorers.
“Even though those guys maybe played 16 games together, you saw a change,” Frank said of Harden’s season and a half in Brooklyn. “James (was) the leading scorer, leading assist, MVP, Sixth Man of the Year.
“And in Brooklyn, you saw it at different times of the game … he was going to be a playmaker, and sometimes when he was playing the second unit, he was a scorer. Then it was his first. All year in Philly, you saw his pride in (helping) Joel Embiid to be the MVP. “
How will Harden step in and help Leonard and George?
Lue had a four-day break between games that he will use as a minicamp of sorts to get Harden and fellow newcomer PJ Tucker together. Harden asked for a lot of film to watch during that time while going through 5-on-5 and multiple scrimmages to improve mentally and physically.
Lue has been reliable when starting five games against the Knicks, but Westbrook, Harden, George and Leonard and Ivica Zubac are expected to start. After seeing how they open the game together,a coach can also interfere with his stars or see how the second unit can work with Harden running the show.
He can also try Harden working in a 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 uses ball screens. Last season, he was a ball handler on 66.1 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 averaged 18.6 rebounds per game, second only to Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic of the NBA, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That would free up Leonard and George — both of whom ranked in the top 10 in shooting percentage and were the most contested among players to attempt 500 or more field goals last season, according to Second Spectrum.
This season, Lue has placed an emphasis on ball movement and cutting. But now the Clippers have four of the top 12 singles players in the past 10 seasons with Harden leading that pack. Although 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 100 possessions last season but ranked near the bottom of the league in possession efficiency.
Along with bringing Harden together, Lue will also continue: Get Leonard in his mid-range spots, keep George in the All-Star rhythm he’s been in to open this season, and make sure Westbrook stays involved and on the offensive end.
“I think we still have to be selfish,” Leonard explained. “Which means we’re not going to look over our shoulder and say this guy is going to win the game (tonight), or this guy is going to win the game for us. We still have to step on that floor as we go out alone. (stay aggressive).
“From there, it’s going to be a sacrifice. It’s just one basketball game, and we have to get it there. But I think we’re all old enough to understand what we want to do here, and we’ll see what happens.”
If Terance Mann returns, Lue will have another potential line decision to make. Mann was named the starter in the first game before suffering an ankle injury. The guard participated in Friday’s limited practice and is day-to-day. Lue appreciates Mann’s versatility, defense and ability to match and complement stars like Leonard and George.
Lue has a reputation as a player coach and is one of the best at adapting to the best. That could benefit Harden, who made headlines last week when he said the Sixers didn’t capitalize on his potential, making him feel like he’s “on the road.”
“I think the game and I’m creative on the court,” Harden said. “So if I got the word where I could, ‘Hey, Coach, I see this. What do you think about this?’ Someone who trusts me who believes in me who understands me I’m not a gamer I’m a system you know what I mean?
“So someone who can have that conversation with me, understand, move forward, see and make changes on the fly during the season, that’s what I really care about. It’s not just that I hit the basketball, I scored 34 points. I’ve done that.”
Harden: ‘I’m not a system player, I’m a system’
Newly acquired Clippers guard James Harden is clarifying his comments about being “on a leash” in Philadelphia.
Third time the charm for Westbrook and Harden? Will it work now?
Westbrook and Harden have known each other since they were kids growing up in LA. Now they are the first MVP duo to play together on three different teams. Posted by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook and Harden are the only players in NBA history to win more goals and assist titles.
But in their previous season with the Houston Rockets in 2019-2020, the two were only able to reach the second round of the postseason before falling 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 works in 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, playing with each other. I don’t know if it’s the same (experience this time), especially Kawhi and PG.
“I think this team is a completely different type of energy (for them).”
Westbrook welcomed both of his first (and now new) teammates when they arrived at Crypto.com Arena last Tuesday, and poked fun at 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 thinks about keeping the ball in Westbrook’s hands in those situations.
“Getting James on the ball a lot, running our routes and being quick and getting out of pin-downs and letting Russ catch so he can match his quarterback,” Lue said Sunday. “That’s what we talked about the last two or three days when they sat together,
Lue may want to continue pairing Westbrook with George, who is off to a good start since the 2018-19 season when he was an MVP candidate and averaged 28 points and 8.2 rebounds next to Westbrook in the Oklahoma City. In five games this season, George averaged 28.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and 51.2% shooting from behind the arc. He looks more comfortable playing next to Westbrook, who George lobbied 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 attributes the Clippers will need even with Harden on board. Even as a starter, Westbrook could also be an option to use on the second unit.
If Lue ultimately decides the team is better off with a star off the bench, Westbrook has more recent experience as a sixth man. But that would be a difficult and dangerous decision for Lue. As evidenced by his play and demeanor, Westbrook looks happier than when he came off the bench for the Lakers in 2022-23.
It remains to be seen which order Lue finishes the games with.
“It’s going to be a process,” Westbrook said when asked repeatedly how the Clippers will put everything together. “I don’t have an answer. I don’t know, I don’t predict the future …. But it will be a process.
“It’s going to be ups and downs, it’s going to be good games, bad games. It’s not just going to come together and come together and we’re going to be fine. That’s an unrealistic expectation for everybody. The realistic expectation (is) it’s going to be a process. I don’t have an answer to what that is.”
Will the LA connection help the star quartet?
The one bond these four stars share is that they are all from the Los Angeles area and have a strong desire to return home to play for the Clippers.
The Clippers believe that the common goal of the players to win a ring at home in front of the family and the desire to stay in Los Angeles will help to solve the problems that may exist between this partnership of Southern California stars.
“We thought we could all figure it out,” George said of the four stars discussing how this would work. “We could play with each other. And what better story to tell than four Southern Cal guys (who have never) been champions. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re all very hopeful that we can pull this off.”
All four players have something to prove. Leonard and George want to show they can stay healthy, win it all and get long-term extensions. Westbrook has found a new home and wants to prove his critics 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 that he is still a quality player who can fit in with other stars while dispelling the bad news surrounding him after the Sixers’ turmoil.
“I’m back home,” Harden said. “My comfort level is to go back to the family and have some very good players in this team.
“Also, basically all four guys are from California. This is a unique story.”