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After A Sluggish Start With James Harden, The Clippers Suddenly Look Like Legit Contenders | TheSportsDay After A Sluggish Start With James Harden, The Clippers Suddenly Look Like Legit Contenders | TheSportsDay

After a sluggish start with James Harden, the Clippers suddenly look like legit contenders

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The soundbite reverberated across the NBA: “I’m not a system player. I am a system.”

When James Harden said that in his introductory news conference as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, it hit many ears as a statement borne of ego — a fading 34-year-old, coming off both another postseason meltdown and a messy summertime divorce from his longtime patron, trying to insist in spite of mounting evidence that he was still the sort of superstar whom teams should view as a centerpiece. (And maybe there was some of that.) Two wildly successful months later, though, it seems reasonable to give Harden the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe Harden’s not a solar system anymore: the sun around whom everything and everyone must orbit. For the Clippers, though — who have now won 13 of their last 15 games to jump into fourth place in the West, three games behind conference-leading Minnesota — he’s been a circulatory system.

Harden connects this talented roster’s disparate parts. He provides oxygen to an offense that had finished in the bottom 10 in points scored per possession in both of the previous two seasons, ensuring that everyone gets what they need to keep the organism healthy and functioning — and, with any luck, moving toward the kind of championship contention that has eluded both the franchise and its bearded new point guard.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 24: Kawhi Leonard #2 and James Harden #1 of the Los Angeles Clippers looks on in the third quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans during an NBA In-Season Tournament game at Crypto.com Arena on November 24, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 24: Kawhi Leonard #2 and James Harden #1 of the Los Angeles Clippers looks on in the third quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans during an NBA In-Season Tournament game at Crypto.com Arena on November 24, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

After a rocky first few games while he worked his way into game shape and head coach Tyronn Lue worked out the kinks in L.A.’s rotation, Harden has helped remake the Clippers — but not by insisting on a return to all-encompassing Rockets-era ball dominance. He’s averaging fewer touches per game than he has since 2013. He’s totaling less time of possession, on average, than he has in a decade. Not only is his usage rate down dramatically; he’s finishing the same share of his team’s offensive possessions as he did as a rookie in Oklahoma City.

“When you got a guy that comes here who’s been an MVP of the league, and carried his own team for so many years, and just come here willing to sacrifice, take less shots, less pick-and-rolls, take more catch-and-shoot 3s, all the things he’s done and sacrificed, [that’s] huge,” Lue told reporters last month.

Harden has been extremely efficient when he’s looked for his own offense: 17.7 points in 34.1 minutes per game, shooting a career-best 43.3% from 3-point range, including a scorching 44.9% on pull-up triples. (And Lue wasn’t wrong: He’s actually taking more catch-and-shoot 3s! He’s up to 2.1 attempts per game, his most since 2016-17, and making 42.4% of them.) And while he hasn’t called his own number nearly as often as he has in years past, his arrival has boosted both the frequency with which the Clips attack in isolation — they’ve been the league’s most isolation-heavy team this season, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s tracking — and their one-on-one scoring efficiency.

When you factor in trips where a player passes out of the iso, the Clippers boast the NBA’s second-best offense on those plays, trailing only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder. Harden isolations (including his pass-outs) are producing 1.236 points per possession, according to Synergy — first out of 61 players who’ve attacked one-on-one at least 50 times. No. 2 on that list? No. 2 on the Clips: Kawhi Leonard, whose isos have generated 1.223 points per possession, just ahead of SGA and right in line with Tyrese Haliburton.

Harden’s been most transformative for the Clips, though, in the same way he once helped streamline operations in Brooklyn and Philadelphia — by paving a cleaner path to points with his table-setting. In 28 games, he already has more assists (227) than any Clipper besides Paul George had in the entire 2022-23 season (288). He already has more double-digit-assist games than any Clipper has had in a season since Chris Paul in 2016-17.

Incumbent superstars Leonard and George are plenty capable of cooking for themselves. Still, though: It’s awfully nice to have someone fix your plate for you. Nearly 52% of Leonard’s field goals have been assisted this season, and more than 55% of George’s have — the highest share for each of them since they first emerged as All-Star scorers in San Antonio and Indiana, respectively. The primary driver of those helpers, as you’d expect: Harden, who has dished 49 assists to George, 49 to Leonard and 45 to center Ivica Zubac, who’s scoring a career-high 12 points per game on 64.2% shooting — including a wild 66% from floater range — thanks in part to Harden’s pristine service in the two-man game:

“We do it a lot at the facility and we do it a lot in the games, and all that repetition game after game helps,” Zubac recently told reporters. “And we’re still not there yet. He still gets mad at me sometimes when I slip out or if I don’t flip a pick. I still sometimes don’t know what he wants, so there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

That’s a frightening proposition for opposing defenses, because the Clips have already shown plenty of offensive growth as Harden and the roster begin to grow more acquainted with each other. The increased variety and punch in the Clippers’ attack was on display throughout Wednesday’s 131-122 road win over the Suns, a game in which L.A. never trailed, controlling throughout and leading by as many as 23.

A Harden iso isn’t just a Harden iso; it’s also George cutting off staggered screens on the weak side, curling into a catch and hitting the paint with a head of steam. Send a double at Leonard in the post, and with George one pass away on the strong side, you’re giving up an in-rhythm catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Don’t send help, and you run the risk of Kawhi victimizing your most vulnerable perimeter defender. (Sorry about that, Grayson Allen.)

Show early help on a Harden-Zubac pick-and-roll, and you’re teeing up a pitch-and-catch to Kawhi. Dial back the help so you can try to zone up, and with Leonard and George spotting up on the same side of the floor, you wind up in no man’s land. Play it straight — your point-of-attack defender chasing Harden over the top of the screen, your big man in a drop to play Harden’s drive, the weak-side low man peeling in to tag Zubac’s roll — and now you’ve got to worry about PG in the corner.

When they’ve all got it going, just about all you can do is load up your coverage off fifth starter Terance Mann, shooting a dismal 40.7% from the field and 21.7% from 3-point range. And when he gets it going, thanks in part to Harden spoon-feeding him hit-ahead passes and extra-pass open looks, you’re probably in for a long night.

The Clippers have been giving defenses a lot more of those as they get more comfortable with their new superstar normal. Big Three minutes (in which L.A.’s outscoring opponents by nearly 11 points per 100) become Kawhi/PG time (plus-26.8 points per 100) while Harden rests, which then morph into Harden-led shifts (plus-3.5 points per 100), Harden/PG minutes (plus-0.3 points per 100) and Kawhi/Harden time (plus-5.5 points per 100), before the Big Three return to close out halves. Everyone gets time to cook, and the defense gets no soft spots, no breathing room — no margin for error.

“How to keep James, PG and Kawhi in a rhythm, in the flow of the game — that was going to be the hardest part,” Lue recently told reporters. “That was going to be the biggest challenge, understanding how we want to play […] getting James out early, bringing him back with the second unit, letting him control that unit, has been really good for us.”

The results speak for themselves. The Clips now sit seventh in the NBA in offensive efficiency and have scored a blistering 122.3 points per 100 possessions with Leonard, George and Harden sharing the floor — a tick above the Celtics’ No. 2-ranked full-season offense.

The ascent started with a starting lineup shakeup that helped L.A. find its best self. Following losses in Harden’s first five games in uniform, during which the Clippers’ first-blush starters were outscored by 20 points in 58 minutes, Russell Westbrook reportedly asked Lue to bring him off the bench, a move he felt would “help the first unit develop some chemistry and [allow him] to provide the second unit with spirited play.”

The change has paid massive dividends. The new starting five has blitzed opponents by 90 points in 260 minutes, the fifth-highest mark of any five-man unit in the league. (NBA.com’s John Schuhmann shared an incredible note earlier this week: Those 260 minutes are nearly as many as any five-man lineup the Clippers have fielded in the entire five seasons of the Kawhi and PG era.) A version of the starting group that swaps Mann out for sweet-shooting reserve Norman Powell has been even more explosive, outscoring opponents by 50 points in just 68 minutes.

Combine that with better balance in the second unit — Westbrook’s per-minute production has increased virtually across the board since his move to the bench alongside Powell (averaging 13.3 points per game on .654 true shooting, a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate) and Daniel Theis (a fantastic addition at backup center in place of the injured Mason Plumlee, who may be returning soon) — and you’ve got a recipe for sustained dominance. Since Mann replaced Westbrook in the first five, the Clips have gone an NBA-best 18-5, ranking fourth in the league in offense and 11th in defense, according to Cleaning the Glass.

“Obviously, it didn’t start off well,” Harden told reporters after Wednesday’s win in Phoenix. “So many people was — it gave people so much to talk about in a negative way — and now those people that were talking are nowhere to be found. Like, literally nowhere to be found.”

One thing that has a way of quieting down critics? Seeing Kawhi consistently perform at a near-MVP level.

Early in the season, Leonard wasn’t blowing by his defenders as often, generating as much separation or getting as much elevation on his jumpers as he typically does at his best. As the season’s worn on, though, he’s gotten back enough burst that, combined with his downright hilarious strength, he’s blown right past “warmed up” to “scorching,” shooting a career-high 59% on dribble-drives and 81% overall in the restricted area.

Harden’s entry as L.A.’s primary playmaker has reduced Leonard’s overall offensive workload, which has helped boost his efficiency: Out of 103 players getting at least 50 touches per game, Leonard ranks first in points per touch. He’s been very good-to-elite in damn near every way you can score — isolation, transition, firing out of the pick-and-roll, spotting up off the ball, sprinting into a dribble handoff, making an off-ball cut, you name it — and if he gets the ball on the right wing, especially with an emptied strong-side corner, you’re toast:

Since the starting lineup change, Leonard is averaging 26.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He’s shooting 60% on 2s — the lion’s share of them coming from midrange, on tough pull-up jumpers, against super tight coverage — as well as 44% from beyond the arc and 92% at the charity stripe. Oh, and he’s back to playing panic-attack-inducing perimeter defense, tying for fifth in the NBA in steals and eighth in deflections while more regularly taking on some of the league’s toughest covers, from Stephen Curry and LeBron James all the way up to Victor Wembanyama.

Add it all up, and there’s Kawhi, in or around the top 10 in a bunch of advanced metrics — estimated plus-minus, total win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating, DARKO, LEBRON, etc. — and looking for all the world like what the Clippers have staked their franchise on him being: someone capable of being the best player on a championship team.

He looked that way in 2021, when the Clippers went from finally realized superteam to just-falling-short conference finalist after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He looked that way again this past spring, when he was playing like the best dude on the floor in a series against Kevin Durant and Devin Booker … right up until he tore the meniscus in that same right knee. It took another surgery, months of rehab and some time to establish a new normal following the Harden blockbuster. But he’s back now, fully operational — save for the four games he just missed due to a left hip contusion — and ready to keep propelling the Clippers’ rise up the standings.

“Now, I feel good coming out of games, and I don’t feel any [pain],” Leonard recently told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “So, I just want to keep going, and that’s my goal is just to stay healthy, and the rest will play itself out.”

We all know the questions: about whether Leonard and George will be able to be on the floor when it matters come springtime; about Harden’s house-of-horrors postseason history; about the sword-of-Damocles-specter of Kawhi and PG opting out of their contracts this season and Harden’s impending unrestricted free agency; about the possibility that this is the last chance for this era of Clippers basketball to cash in on its estimable promise. The answers will come soon enough. For now, all the Clippers can do is keep stacking wins, keep building chemistry and keep the good vibes rolling. Full speed, straight ahead. All systems go.

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