If it’s not yet panic stations for the Los Angeles Clippers, it can’t be far off.
The team has fallen to 0-5 in the James Harden era since his trade from Philadelphia – an era that’s so far looked dysfunctional with an array of problems that need to be solved.
It comes amid an overall six-game losing streak – the longest such losing streak of Kawhi Leonard’s career including his high school and college days, per Clippers writer Justin Russo – to see the team sit 3-7 overall in the standings.
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So what have been the issues?
The main concern post the Harden trade was how a team with four stars in Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Harden and Russell Westbrook, who all need to the ball to be effective, would function together. And so far that concern has been validated.
It’s not a knock on the players – they’re all still stars (we think?) – but more around the team build and particularly the pairing of Westbrook and Harden on the court, which has created stagnation and spacing concerns. In fact, in the minutes Harden has been on the court in his five appearances for the Clippers, Tyron Lue’s team has been outscored by 70.
The chemistry has been a mess with limited movement and a lot of ‘your turn, my turn’ on offence, with both Harden and Leonard really struggling to have an impact in those last five games. It’s just too crowded and cannibalising both the players’ games and the team as a whole.
They also lack size, which is of great concern against bigger West Conference opponents like Denver, Minnesota and the Lakers, and depth – particularly on the wings – after dealing a host of role players to Philly in the Harden trade.
Plus, this is it. The Clippers went all in with this roster by trading away nearly all their draft picks for the rest of the decade.
And so they’re now basically investing all their hopes into an ageing core/rotation consisting of the big four, all of whom can become free agents at the end of the season, a combination of Ivicia Zubac and Mason Plumlee at centre (who’ve both battled injury), Terrence Mann, Norman Powell and PJ Tucker.
The numbers so far tell the story of their struggles, with the Clippers during the Harden era posting a bottom four offensive rating, while it hasn’t been much better at the other end of the floor either, with a bottom six defensive rating.
Harden did note after the team’s most recent loss to Denver he’s still “getting into shape” after missing pre-season and “learning on the fly” after only recently joining the Clippers.
But fitness aside, Harden declaring in his press conference after the trade he’s “a system” – “not a system player” – doesn’t necessarily fill you with any great confidence about him potential willingness to adapt his game – even if it means sacrificing stats – to make things work in LA.
Some growing pains were to be expected, but this has been plain ugly.
“It takes a while when you throw players together, especially really good players. You have four guys who are used to having the ball, so they’ve got to figure out that aspect,” NBA analyst Bill Simmons said of the Clippers on The Bill Simmons Podcast.
“I thought the (Harden) trade was ludicrous and stupid by them, I just didn’t understand it. One of the reasons was, there’s just not enough balls, all of these guys are at their best when they have the ball … you can see it already, the standing around — that’s now how they were playing two weeks ago.
“I just don’t see how it’s going to work. I know Ty Lue is a really good coach, but I just don’t see it. The more I watch it, I still don’t see it. I don’t think they have enough size, I don’t think they can switch and I think there’s certain players who are going to kill them.
“I think they could be out of the playoff picture in six weeks.
“Then James had that press conference, which made me feel worse about everything from a Clippers standpoint … it seemed like he was complaining about how he was used last year. It’s like, you played with a guy who won the MVP (Joel Embiid) and he averaged 33 points a game. (The Sixers) were 46-19 in the last 65 games. I thought that was alarming those were his feelings on last year.
“They literally gave (Harden) the car keys and the car and there wasn’t even a backup driver … I’m dubious (about the Clippers) and I think this is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Indeed, there’s problems everywhere like a myriad of spot fires that need to be put out before this team can move in the right direction. Establishing roles and the ideal rotation and becoming a more cohesive basketball team is clearly key – and with time those things can be resolved.
However in the current NBA climate, it’s widely thought that the ideal roster construction is two superstars being surrounded by a host of versatile role players who buy into those roles and compliment the big guns. Think Denver, Boston and Philadelphia.
The Clippers have meanwhile gone in the polar opposite direction and followed the lead of past failed experiments by bunching a group of ball-dominant stars together in hopes it’ll somehow click. But that’s not how basketball nor any team sport works.
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The absence of role players on the Clippers just makes it that much more difficult for everyone else. Who’s going to set screens (especially with limited bigs), dive on loose balls, take fouls and do all the other little, selfless acts for the betterment of the team?
You don’t even necessarily wan’t to rely on your stars to do those things in season, particularly given the injury concerns to George and Leonard.
“I think they’re in a situation where, even though it’s early and you’re going to give them a chance and time, doesn’t it feel like these early signs may be some problems that aren’t solvable? Who’s to say Harden just hasn’t continued to decline physically even more than he did the last two or three years?,” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor posed on the Mismatch Podcast.
“We have all these issues – the stars needing to fill into a role on certain nights, figuring out roles, a lack of depth after trading away everybody they did, Ty Lue needing to figure out rotations.
“And then there’s the lack of assets, they don’t have anything to upgrade this team from what it is today. That’s the scary part here for the Clippers, if Zubac doesn’t get healthy and Plumlee is already hurt – and it’s Plumlee, he’s nothing special – where’s your answer at the five? How do you solve some of these big, long and versatile teams?
“It’s very possible this is not just the beginning and it gets better from here, but the beginning of the end.”
O’Connor highlighted how the addition of Harden has thrown out all the Clippers’ roles after they’d been established over the pre-season, with the team now needing to “figure it out on the fly.”
He emphasised that Harden simply “isn’t producing”, with the 10-time All-Star currently averaging just 15 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game with a 16.2 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) [which is essentially how productive or positive a player is on the court] – well down on his career average of 24.3.
Harden’s 16.2 PER is worse than the likes of Malik Monk, Dennis Schroder, DeAndre Ayton, Jusuf Nurkic, Zubac and Obi Toppin this season.
“(Harden) looks like he doesn’t have the same level of burst right now off the dribble, even less so than last year. He’s not getting to the rim as much, he’s not able to create as much space and defensively he looks even more like a liability,” O’Connor told the Mismatch Podcast.
“And he’s just changing the way that offence plays because he’s still playing the way he typically always has. With Russ (Westbrook), the offence ran better, but it’s not like Russ is necessarily the answer, that’s why they got Harden …
“James Harden needs to prove he can do the little things as well, it’s on Harden to bring that back in his game. I’m going to keep hammering that point all year, because I know it’s true … it was assumed he was still going to be the same quality as last year where he helped Embiid to an MVP season.
“He was a great playmaker and still had some really good scoring nights. Harden was like top 30-35 last season, but right now he hasn’t been one of the 100 best players in the league through the small sample thus far. That more than anything else needs to improve for the Clippers.”
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NBA analyst Nick Wright went so far to label Harden “maybe the most tone deaf athlete of my lifetime”.
“Even if you wanted out of Philly, you could’ve stayed in shape and gone to training camp,” Wright said on Fox Sports US’ First Things First.
“Also I don’t think when he gets in shape it’s necessarily going to be good for the Clippers. His whole reason of wanting to be there is to get a big contract and he’s going to think he has to do that by being the James Harden ‘system’ and other people sitting around and watching him.
“So when he gets in shape he’s going to try to meet his own ends, which is his numbers go up and so somebody pays him. Which by the way, he doesn’t get it, because no one is going to pay him.
“But here’s the part of this I can’t get over – the Clippers opted into this. I understand why the Sixers traded him, they had to, and I understand why James wanted to go to the Clippers … why did (team president) Lawrence Frank do this!?
“This is an unforced error of epic proportions.”
Without doubt one of the big questions is – with so many concerns around Harden’s fit on the team even before he’d played a game for the Clippers, why did they trade for him? And mortgage more of their future assets in the process?
According to former NBA coach Doc Rivers, it was Clippers owner Steve Balmer’s huge swing ahead of the team moving into a new arena next year.
“They’re going all in and we don’t know if they went in the right way,” Rivers said on The Bill Simmons Podcast.
“If you could tap into Steve Balmer’s head, his dream is to go into that new arena putting up a banner. So you get desperate at times — I don’t know if desperate is the right word — but you start making moves maybe you wouldn’t make if you wanted to be more patient.
“And they can’t be patient when you look at the ages of Paul and Kawhi. It’s been four years they’ve been together, this almost has to be the year.”
Granted, there’s still plenty of time to figure things out.
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While they’ve slumped to 3-7 overall to currently sit outside the play-in qualification, it’s just 10 games into an 82-game season – or 12 per cent of the way through.
That’s the beauty of the marathon NBA campaign, the Clippers can afford time in-season to iron out the kinks. We’ve seen struggling teams turn it around before including the Lakers recovering from a 2-10 start last season.
Former NBA player Kenny Smith on NBA on TNT said he believes the onus is on Lue to create an offence and develop a brand where their stars can coexist, saying “this is why coaches get paid.”
But the clock is ticking, and as mentioned, it’s now or never for the Clippers given they’ve gone chips in with this team.
After coming up considerably short in the playoffs with just George and Leonard, who despite being genuine superstars have struggled with health, this is effectively the team’s last chance to complete for a championship.
So what could they do in terms of roster moves despite having little trade value or rotation changes otherwise?
There’s a view that Westbrook will be made the scapegoat, whether it’s by benching him or moving him into a sixth-man role.
Lue has so far been steadfast that he has no plans of moving Westbrook to the bench – even though it’s a role he had success in at the Lakers last season. But Lue’s hand might be eventually forced if the team’s woes continue.
It’s frankly hard to see how else the teams quartet of stars – namely Westbrook Harden – can function at their and the team’s optimum. At the very least, Westbrook and Harden need to have their minutes on the court together staggered.
Or the team could force Westbrook off the court by trading him …
“They’re going to figure it out by trading (Westbrook), and he’s going to be on Miami in like three weeks. You can already see it, the bread crumbs are already being laid out,” Bill Simmons said on the Bill Simmons Podcast.
“By the way, if I was Miami I would go get him. I think that’s somebody who could really help them — he plays at a crazy intensity, he can help with the rebounding, he gives them Lowry insurance — Lowry is 37, you know he’s going to get hurt at some point.”
Just like immediately after the trade went down, there’s more questions than answers for the Clippers.
It’s supposed to be the team that acquires the star in a trade that flourishes. But in this case, the Clippers have watched Philadelphia surge in the Eastern Conference standings and into bona fide title contention after Harden’s departure opened the door for Tyrese Maxey to grow into a genuine superstar.
It was addition by subtraction for the Sixers in a complete contrast to the stumbling Clippers. After all, they say a champion team will always beat a team of champions.