This offseason, James Harden perfected his signature move.
First, he pump-faked the basketball world (by accepting his player-option), stepped back (from the Sixers and then dogged his longtime associate Daryl Morey in China), then he requested officials bail him out by forcing his way to the Clippers (instead of the charity stripe). The Beard getting to L.A. felt as inevitable as him manipulating the refs and the rule book at his peak. Like watching him throw himself into defenders, Harden getting his way left everyone feeling queasy.
The good news is that the Clippers got their point guard. The Clippers are now a volatile amalgamation of enigmatic superstars. Chemistry be damned, Tyronn Lue will have to coach and serve as talent manager. Wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the seasoned versions of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If the Lakers are the mercenary organization who attracts universally respected iconic stars, the Clippers have to be the NBA’s greatest foils. Nobody will feel good watching the Clippers hoist a Larry O’Brien Trophy except Clipper Darrell. Even a majority of Los Angelians would rather root for the Lakers.
Ironically, their stars are prodigal sons who began their careers as plucky underdogs. Palmdale’s George and Riverside’s Leonard weren’t offered scholarships from UCLA, so they wound up at Fresno State and San Diego State, respectively. But Leonard squashed all his good will by forcing his way out of San Antonio and has become the metonym for load management since. He’s also a former two-time Defensive Player of the year. For two years, they’ve been too injured to star in the one-box.
Long Beach native Russell Westbrook and Lakewood’s Harden are the new additions. Both can be their own team’s own worst enemy. Off the court, nobody has ever had a bad thing to say about Westbrook’s leadership. But in the thick of it, he’s a live wire near a crowded pool.
Los Angeles’ homecoming team spent four years acquiring a primetime cast of self-made locals as they open their $2 billion Inglewood arena in 2024. For better or worse, Clipper Nation got what they wanted with scintillating talent on the floor and a temperamental star off of it. Harden has syndicated his drama across four organizations. How he meshes with Westbrook for the third time will be a fascinating development to witness. Harden reportedly pushed for the Rockets to trade Westbrook the last time they linked up and a month later the organization appeased him, accelerating their own demise in the process.
The scrutiny on the pair will be even more intense now that Westbrook will have to play more off-ball while Harden is on the floor, while watching his usage shrink. This time, they’ll have to incorporate George and Harden into the offense.
At the nexus of all this will be George’s impending free agency if he decides to opt-out and earn one last max contract pay day, and Harden’s expiring contract. Harden is playing for one last $200 million payday of his own. On one hand, that should be motivation enough for him to do everything in his power to make this work. On the other, we haven’t seen Harden on a court since going 3-for-11 from the field in Game 7 against Boston.
The Clippers managed to keep Terance Mann and Norm Powell, and while there is a plethora of overlapping talent, they’ve raised their ceiling with the Harden acquisition as long as they remain healthy. Leonard and George’s bodies tend to break down as the postseason approaches.
The last time Harden was on a paper dragon of this nature, a Harden hamstring injury and Kyrie Irving’s cantankerous personality helped those Nets sabotage themselves internally. That team assembled too many oddball personalities, but they also had the firepower to win it all.
The Clippers have one-upped them on both fronts.
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