The NBA season of blockbuster trades continues.
Not wanting to wait until the trade deadline, Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers found a way to trade James Harden on Halloween along with PJ Tucker and Filip Petrusev to the Los Angeles Clippers in return for Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nic Batum, KJ Martin and draft compensation that includes two second-round picks and a first-round pick swap.
The hours immediately following the deal have been controversial for those tapped into Clippers Nation.
Did the Los Angeles front office just acquire a ticking time bomb? Did the Clippers give up too much to get a disgruntled superstar who couldn’t play with former NBA MVP Kevin Durant in Brooklyn or 2022-23 MVP Joel Embiid in Philly?
And does this deal give them the ammunition to battle with the NBA’s other superteams?
Despite what his naysayers might have to say about him (and the fact that he was snubbed of a 2023 All-Star selection), Harden still performed at a star level in 2022-23.
Last season, the 14th-year guard finished 10th in DRIP (our metric that projects a player’s contributions to a team’s plus/minus per 100 possession) and 12th in O-DRIP (the offensive version of the measure). No matter how you slice it, adding a player of that magnitude is always a boon for your team.
On top of that, Harden is the perfect theoretical fit to slot alongside Los Angeles centerpiece Kawhi Leonard. Harden, who has also played for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, has a reputation of being a great regular-season performer who loses some luster in the playoffs.
Leonard, meanwhile, is one of the best postseason scorers the game has ever seen, though he hardly ever stays healthy long enough to show it.
Leonard’s co-star, Paul George, also failed to stay healthy last year – missing the entirety of Los Angeles’ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns. In fact, both of these star wings have been plagued with injuries since their arrival at LAX. In the last five seasons, neither Leonard nor George have appeared in more than 57 regular-season games.
There is no guarantee that it works (there never is when it comes to injuries), but having Harden to eat innings in the regular season gives the Clippers a better chance of having a healthy Leonard and George for the postseason.
Even when their star tandem is healthy, the Clippers have struggled to flank them with a high-end facilitator. As we mentioned in last week’s notebook, Russell Westbrook has been able to fill that void to a degree, but he’s still limited as an on-ball creator because of his lack of outside shooting.
He’s not what he was in his glory days, but even this version of Harden represents the best blend of on-ball creation (10.7 assists per game in 2022-23) and shooting (38.5% from 3) the Clippers have had in the Leonard/George era.
As a team, this new version of the Clippers still has the off-ball shooting to space the floor for Harden and profit off of his isolation and pick-and-roll exploits.
We included Harden’s numbers on the graphic above to illustrate that he can also play off-ball in the moments when Leonard and George (and Westbrook) want to captain the ship.
That’s the other thing. Everyone wants to typecast Harden as a guy who only provides offensive value when he’s on the ball. But in reality, he does have some utility as a spacer.
In the clip below from the Sixers’ Eastern Conference series against the Boston Celtics last year, you see Jaylen Brown literally face-guarding Harden despite The Beard being nowhere near the action. This effectively turns the game into a 4-on-4.
And as all streetballers know, the fewer guys involved in the game, the more room for the offense to operate.
It’s also worth noting that the Clippers have good rim-running bigs (Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee) to pair with Harden and that this version of the deal enables the Clippers to hold on to Terance Mann (a player they seem to value highly).
Very few trades in NBA history have come without any potential downsides, and this one is no different. There are the obvious concerns, like the fact that Harden just turned 34, has some injuries under his belt, and a well-documented history of dissatisfaction with his employers.
But based on last season’s production, Harden seems to still have plenty of ponies left in his stable (as for his penchant for requesting trades, one can only pray that he’s out of that phase of his life).
The larger issue here is the hit taken to their defense. Through four games in 2023-24, the Clippers have had the best defensive rating in the association. A big reason for their hot start has been their ability to end possessions prematurely by creating turnovers.
So far, they are second in the league in opponent turnover percentage (15.8%). Unfortunately, this trade saw them part ways with three of their best defensive playmakers (Covington, Martin, and Batum).
Also, remember how effective the Clippers’ small-ball lineup was against the Utah Jazz in the 2021 Western Conference semifinals?
This trade takes away three potential candidates to play the small-ball 5. One could argue that Tucker could play this role, but at this stage in the game, he’s not a better option than Batum or Covington (it’s debatable whether Tucker is better than Martin right now).
The Bottom Line
At the beginning of last season, we ran a study (one we highly recommend you check out) on 144 teams that made the conference finals to find out what kinds of teams make deep playoff runs.
What we learned is that to compete for a title, your team generally needs to meet at least one of these three requirements. They need to either be an elite offense, an elite defense, or balanced on both sides of the ball.
Last year, the Clippers were none of these things. Actually, they were below average on both sides of the ball. They finished 16th in our adjusted offensive rating (AOR) metric and 19th in our adjusted defensive rating (ADR).
With Harden in and so many of their versatile forwards out, the chances of them having an elite defense are low. However, there is a shot that he, Leonard, George and Co. mesh to a degree that their offense is one of the best in basketball.
And there is an even greater chance that Harden-ball elevates enough offensive responsibility from Leonard and George to allow them to return to their defensive-stopper origins (kind of like how Westbrook has). In that case, it wouldn’t be hard to envision the Clippers as one of the balanced teams we often see in the conference finals.
In any event, this Clippers roster is far from a finished product. They still have some draft capital (their 2030 first-round pick) that they can package with Norman Powell or Bones Hyland to help give them more size and defense.
And while their roster is still plenty flawed, the Clippers have a better chance of competing for the NBA title after this Harden trade than they did before it.