The James Harden trade has finally gone through and the LA Clippers are making a final push for an elusive NBA championship. Is this really the roster that will get the job done?
The longest saga in the 2023 NBA offseason has finally finished and James Harden now plays for the LA Clippers, his long-time preferred destination, after deciding he doesn’t want to ever play for an organisation with Daryl Morey on it again.
From the Clippers’ point of view, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the wrong side of 30 and this gamble might be the last one Steve Ballmer has in his corner before tearing it all down and rebuilding (alongside a billion-dollar stadium).
Resident optimist and pessimist, Sean Carroll and Alessio Conte respectively, jump on the keyboard to gauge how we’re feeling about the “superstar” trade.
Are four all-stars better than three?
Four complementary All-Stars are certainly better than three, but it would be a long shot to call this situation complementary.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden have consistently found their greatest successes when sharing the floor with utilities and floor spacers: three-point shooters to be exact.
By no means are Kawhi Leonard or Paul George slouches in this department, in fact, they might be the best tandem in the league when healthy. However, our guards need players who can catch-and-shoot quickly and do almost nothing else, so as to not get in the way.
Where are those players on this roster? Over in Philadelphia now… whoops.
James Harden can claim to be a “a system” as much as he likes, but this system has never proven to work with the lack of shooting that any Clippers lineup will make available to him.
He has succeeded in short spurts as a distributor, posting good individual and team numbers with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively. Those teams had very different compositions though, allowing Harden to flourish.
Despite what he may think, Russell Westbrook is not exactly Kyrie Irving when it comes to catch-and-shoot threes, or, literally anything else on a basketball court.
At least he’s available. However, I doubt that will be enough.
Especially since George and Leonard will eventually find a way to be unavailable.
The LA Clippers have two former MVPs, 32 All-Star appearances, 27 All-NBA appearances and Terrence Mann, a role player who was apparently the most untouchable player in the world for a few months.
That should be more than enough to compete for a title. This isn’t Karl Malone and Gary Payton jumping (or hobbling) onto an early 2000s LA Lakers team, hoping to win a ring. These are serious stars in their late prime, it should be enough.
Well, just ask the 2014-15 Phoenix Suns what happens when a bunch of players excel with the ball in their hands… not well.
I’m not comparing Harden to a pre-breakout Isaiah Thomas, but as much as teams want to bend the maths in our beautiful game, there will always be just one basketball. The Clippers are best when Kawhi Leonard is doing his thing against frightened defenders and sometimes kicking it out to Paul George, who’s the most overqualified second option attacking closeouts.
Throw Russell Westbrook and James Harden into the mix and what are the other three players doing when one of them dribble?
Four All-Stars are better than three, I’m not doubting that. The Golden State Warriors had four in the 2017-18 season, it just so happened that one of them excels at shooting off the dribble and another is one of the best screeners and distributors for his position. We’re about to see what happens when the best players all want… no, need, the ball in their hands.
P.J. Tucker is the small-ball five that the Clippers have dreamt of since 2020, that’s an excellent addition, right?
2021 PJ Tucker would likely be the biggest key to unlocking this Clippers roster. He was by far the most valuable small-ball, big-man defender not named Draymond Green and could hit his fair share of open and contested corner threes.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they have traded for 2023 Tucker – a shell of his former self.
His defensive versatility is still clear and will be necessary, but his offensive shortcomings will be impactful in lineups with no genuine shooters outside of Paul George.
Additionally, it may be tougher for Tucker to be as useful on defence when surrounded by notorious sieves, Westbrook and Harden.
Is he better than what they had? Probably not in this roster configuration.
Will they regret parting ways with Marcus Morris? Definitely.
P.J. Tucker, or as I like to call him now, P.J. Three Points is good for a three in the corner every now and again, as long as that “every now and again” is spaced out between four quarters of basketball.
Offence was never the strong suit for the Round Mound of Corner Threes, but even as his offence embarrassingly deserts him, he might have enough in the tank to unlock something for Ty Lue on defence.
He’s not the do-it-all switching defender he was with the Houston Rockets, but he has faster feet than Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee, his direct competitors for minutes. If he can’t do anything as a switch defender, he might be deployed for a handful of minutes against Nikola Jokic in the playoffs. Yes, there’s a high chance he bleeds points in those minutes, but I trust him to do a better job at guarding Jokic than Nic Batum and Robert Covington.
Can Russell Westbrook take on the role and mentality that has been expected of him since he moved to Los Angeles?
Here we go again. Russell Westbrook being on his second LA team means a second reference to my past article from when he was tearing the NBA up with the Houston Rockets.
This is not a question of physical capacity nor mental fortitude. Rather, it is a question of how Russ wishes to utilise his physical capacity and whether he can finally use his mental fortitude to swallow his pride and be the utility that his teammates need.
Westbrook will find success as a slasher on offence and a pest on defence. He is one of the greatest physical specimens in NBA history and should play like it.
His three-star teammates will feed off his energy, vertical spacing and lovable personality.
Unfortunately, I believe that these instances will continue to be few and far between, squashed amongst a bevy of inefficient shooting and high-turnover outings. Much like they were with the Lakers.
Alessio was a huge fan of Russ-at-the-five with the late-Harden Rockets. It’s unfortunate that Westbrook’s little stretch run as a centre ended with COVID, and an ugly playoff run in the Disney Bubble might not have been a true sample of what the team could’ve accomplished.
What’s stopping James Harden from getting upset and forcing his way out of another situation?
Will we be shocked if the norm stays the norm? Likely not.
The only thing floating around in the back of my mind now is that this may be Harden’s last chance at a character redemption.
Former superstars like Carmelo Anthony, and to a certain extent Russell Westbrook, have been blackballed by the league in the past for character issues and an unwillingness to reduce their roles.
Harden seems to be at the cusp of a similar transition. If he decides to lean in and play his role in LA, he will likely be rewarded with a hefty contract – either there or elsewhere.
If he isn’t willing to play ball, I’m not entirely sure who is signing him and for what role in particular. I just guarantee you that won’t be the role he is hoping for.
Forcing his way out of LA will be as detrimental for Harden as it will be for the Clippers, so both parties need this to work.
Mutually assured destruction has not stopped some in the past, though, and Harden doesn’t exactly seem the type to be a team player.
Absolutely nothing is stopping him.
One of the main reasons that Harden forced his way out of Philadelphia was money. He was upset that Morey wasn’t going to bend over and give him the most money he possibly could (which might have been promised) and he left.
Harden’s a free agent at the end of the year and the Clippers have a small window where they can act like the cool new stepdad who walked into a bad situation and looks good by simply not being bad.
“That’s so horrible Philly didn’t pay you man!” stepdad LA would say.
“Oh, you want money from us? This is such a fluid situation bro, let’s just wait and see how it all turns out at the end of the season.”
Harden, Kawhi, George and for what it’s worth, Russ, can all be free agents at the end of the season and leave the Clippers with nothing.
If it all turns pear-shaped, the Orlando Magic are in the market for a ball-handling point guard who can create shots for themselves and others. Oh, and they can open up max cap space quite easily.