As someone who was a moderate defender of the James Harden trade for the Clippers, I wasn’t necessarily expecting the second coming of the 2017 Warriors when the former MVP joined the team. Still, all the stars involved seemed invested in the move happening. So I assumed at a baseline level there would be some chemistry among the group, even if there were a couple of bumps along the way.
Instead, Los Angeles has lost four in a row since Harden made his debut Nov. 6 and, in that (admittedly short) period of time, has been one of the worst teams in the NBA.
The Harden experiment has been an unabashed embarrassment for the Clippers so far. Since The Beard played his first game with the club, Los Angeles is one of only three winless teams and has the third-worst net rating in the league. Meanwhile, the vaunted foursome of Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook—whose accomplishments include multiple MVPs, multiple Finals MVPs and countless All-Star recognitions—has a net rating of minus 15.4 in 65 minutes together.
I get it, sample size, blah blah blah. I don’t want to hear it. There is no 65-minute sample in which those four players should be playing worse than the current worst team in the league. It’s a joke. With all four of Harden, Leonard, George and Westbrook on the floor, the Clippers’ offense is bogged down, while the defense is getting shredded. Relative to the rest of the league, that group is playing worse offense than any team so far and defense that would be sixth worst.
It’s unacceptable. Harden’s infusion into the team has clearly thrown things out of whack. Westbrook went from finally thriving in a defined role to drowning in an awkward back-and-forth between him and Harden in terms of who should be handling the ball to initiate possessions. George went from having a fantastic season to having to play the role of glue guy, then he had to explain why he was choosing to play that role because people were misguidedly trying to dunk on him for actually trying to make this work. And no one even seems to care that Leonard has played in every game without issue so far, because the team has been so bad it’s hard to enjoy a healthy Kawhi.
And the Clippers haven’t exactly played a murderers’ row during this four-game slide, which is actually a five-game slide extending to a game before Harden showed up. Yes, the Mavericks were a tough opponent. We can even say the Knicks, too. But the Nets without Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson? And the completely besotted-by-injuries Grizzlies? Memphis literally doubled its win total by beating the Clippers on Sunday.
We can talk about schemes, rotations, who should have the ball in their hands, playing big vs. playing small, the injury to Mason Plumlee or Terance Mann working his way back into top shape. Sure, perhaps there is some nuance to all of this. But what if the best players on this team, four of whom are headed to the Hall of Fame, actually played better? Where’s the grit? Where’s the resolve? At what point can one of these legends put a stop to this?
If there’s a silver lining it’s this: A win against the Nuggets on Tuesday—a championship-caliber opponent the Clips have struggled with for years—and all of these concerns are allayed. That would be a true statement victory and proof of concept for why the Harden trade was worth it in the first place.
Another loss, though, and the scrutiny only deserves to grow. It may be only four games in, but knowing the individual histories of the players involved and how the team has performed the last few years, it’s already time for the Clippers to get serious about their slide.