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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Chris Mannix

The Clippers Don’t Need to Swing for James Harden, but Maybe They Should

Paul George scored. Kawhi Leonard made plays. Bones Hyland racked up points off the bench. For the third straight preseason game, the Clippers’ defense, at least with the regulars, was throttling. You don’t have to squint to see it. Los Angeles has the look of a championship contender.

Do the Clippers really need James Harden?

These are quiet days in the NBA. Rosters are set. The regular season is still a week away. NBA-specific television shows are grasping for content. Podcasts, too. Hell, The Crossover (subscribe, please!) opened this week’s episode talking about locker room etiquette. It was great. Go listen.

Harden’s future isn’t just a story. It’s the story. And the Clippers are a key part of it. Harden wants a trade to Los Angeles. The Clippers want to bring him there. But they aren’t offering much for Harden. And Philadelphia GM Daryl Morey has been clear he isn’t interested in what he sees as nickels on the dollar.

Harden has been open about his disinterest in the 76ers’ leadership. 

Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports

“Daryl is not going to cave,” an Eastern Conference executive familiar with the Sixers’ thinking told me over text message.

O.K. Should the Clippers? Should Los Angeles offer up Terance Mann, the electric fifth-year swingman? Should Lawrence Frank canvas the league for creative ways to replenish the Clippers’ available draft cache? Should the sons of Steve Ballmer do whatever it takes to ensure a team with a top-five payroll delivers top-level results?

Opinions vary. The argument against is that the Clippers are really good. Leonard, 32, is an MVP candidate. George, 33, is one of the NBA’s best two-way players. Russell Westbrook—after a disastrous, year-plus stint in Arena’s other home locker room—has found an effective role. Ivica Zubac is a solid rim protector and a vacuum on the glass. Robert Covington, Norman Powell and Marcus Morris are reliable role players.

That the Clippers have won just three playoff series in the four years Leonard and George have been together has nothing to do with talent. It’s injuries. In the 142 games Leonard and George have played together, Los Angeles is 96–46. But the two have played in 38% (118 of 308) of the Clippers’ regular-season games and 65% (24 of 37) of the playoffs. Last season the two played 38 games together. When their season ended in Phoenix, neither were on the floor.

On Tuesday, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was asked about his strategy to avoid injuries.

“Pray,” Lue said, laughing.

Only Lue, the son of a minister, wasn’t kidding.

“I’m serious,” Lue said. “We need some luck to be on our side. Our guys understand that we’re going to put the work in and we’re going to do all of the right things. If we’re healthy, we know we have a great chance. We’re trying to stay healthy, but it’s tough. Injuries are a part of our league. It happens. But just a lot of prayer.”

“I just want the opportunity to play with a full roster going into the playoffs. That’s what we are praying about. That’s what we want to see. Our guys as well. As tough as it is on me and our fans and our organization, it’s tougher on those guys because they want to be out there. Big players play in big moments. The playoffs are the biggest stage you can possibly play in. You play 82 games and get to that point, you miss it. We just have to keep having our mindset [that] we’re going to take it game by game, and hopefully we can get through a whole season.”

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Fine. But what if the Clippers can’t? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. The Clippers stars are injury prone. That isn’t going to change. And the Western Conference is loaded. One injury, even a minor one, could mean the difference between a top-four seed or a trip to the lottery. Mann is a good player. Harden is better. Draft picks are nice. Championships are nicer.

Regardless, the Clippers have to do something, don’t they? Trade for Harden or tell the world they aren’t interested in him. Players in that locker room are smart. They can count to $35.6 million. If Harden is coming in, some of them have to go out. Morris has already been asked about it. Nicolas Batum, Covington and Powell have probably thought about it.

I asked Lue whether he was concerned about the constant trade chatter negatively impacting the locker room.

“No, I don’t think so,” Lue says. “I like the team that we have right now. We have a great unit. I’m just focusing on our guys that’s in the locker room. They’re the same way. We’ve had a great camp. They’re locking in and paying attention to detail on both sides of the basketball. That has to be our mindset all season long. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”

This is a pivotal year in Los Angeles. Leonard and George have player options for next season. They could lead the Clippers into the $2 billion Intuit Dome next fall … or they could be playing somewhere else. There’s pressure on Frank. On Lue. On everyone. This team was constructed to win championships. This spring it has to at least compete for one.

The Clippers have taken some big swings in recent years.

The question now is whether they’ll take one more.

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