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The Clippers Are Learning The Difficulties Of The James Harden System

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Getty Image/Merle Cooper

The Clippers lost their fifth straight game on Sunday afternoon when the 1-8 Grizzlies were able to out-execute them down the stretch to pull off a 105-101 win. With the loss, they moved to 0-4 with James Harden in the lineup, and once again their offense was painful to watch as their four former MVP candidates all tried not to step on each other’s toes.

With Harden on the floor on Sunday, the Clippers were an impossibly bad -28 in a game they lost by four, and since his arrival in L.A. the Clippers boast a -25.8 net rating in lineups with Harden. Tyronn Lue’s message to Harden was to be himself and let the Clippers adapt to him, but that didn’t flip a switch against Memphis as many of the same issues persisted.

Every time there’s a new star combination, we wonder who will sacrifice, who will take the lead, and how to best maximize everyone’s skill level. With Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, there was never a question of how that dynamic would work out, as George was happy to raise his hand and say he would be the second option. When they’ve been healthy and shared the floor together, that agreement has worked well for the Clippers. However, with Harden in tow, the arrangement is changing in real time and no one seems quite sure how it all should work.

This is where dragging the trade talks out into the season has hurt L.A., as these are the kinds of things you need to work out in offseason workouts and training camp. While I think some of the same issues would persist, there would at least be a better understanding from their stars of where everyone likes to operate and how to at least try to get the ball to their teammates in their preferred spots. Instead, they’re spending precious time during the season figuring out each other and it’s clear that the learning curve is much steeper than anticipated.

The first sign the Harden experiment in L.A. might not work smoothly came in his introductory press conference, when he insisted he was boxed in by the Sixers and not allowed to play to his best abilities. His exact words were “I’m not a system player, I am a system.”

That sentence should have set off some alarm bells for the Clippers, because if he wasn’t happy fitting in with Joel Embiid (who won MVP last year) and the Sixers, why would that change with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook in Los Angeles. Harden was legitimately good in Philadelphia and won them a couple of playoff games with his play last year, but his ability to consistently carry a team has diminished as he’s gotten older and dealt with various injuries. In theory, he’s the kind of star that should work well with others given his skillset, his passing acumen, and his shooting ability, but the problem comes with his preference to operate at his own cadence.

His propensity to pass up catch-and-shoot opportunities to try and create off the bounce has already been notable with the Clippers, and it will likely be the biggest hurdle to making this entire operation work offensively. Even when he played with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in Houston, he was not always an active threat to shoot the ball while spacing the floor, often stationing himself well away from the three-point line as a release valve to start his own action. In L.A., he’s taken some catch-and-shoot threes and seemingly tried to be a bit more engaged off the ball, but will only let them fly when wide open. His belief in his creation ability works against him when defenders close out on him, because he looks to attack those closeouts off the bounce and defenders are often settling in front of him knowing this rather than flying by.

This gets to the second issue, which is that Harden is one of the best passers in basketball when it comes to creating shots for others, but he is not a connective passer in any way. His passes almost always have the purpose of leading to a shot and rarely come in service of continued action and ball movement. He wants to survey the defense and methodically pick it apart, but that only works when, one, the rest of the team is on the same page and, two, he is given full control to operate the offense. The first issue can be resolved with more time together, but the second is much murkier.

The real problem with the Harden system working in L.A. is they have someone who wants to operate in a similar fashion, particularly late in the game, but is better at it (at this point) in Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi has become a very good spot up shooter, when push comes to shove, he wants the ball in his hands to make decisions and wants the rest of the team playing in his orbit. To do as Ty Lue says and adapt to Harden, the Clippers will need to take the ball out of Leonard’s (and George’s) hands more often — and likely become even more of a “your turn, my turn” offense. That’s an issue that’s already caused some problems for L.A., as their offense already had a tendency to slow up and could get stuck in the mud late in games, and Harden’s presence only exacerbates those problems.

Since Harden’s arrival, the Clippers pace has dropped off considerably (a full four possessions per game) and no one is moving with confidence or comfortability in the halfcourt. Time together will certainly help, as will some inevitable positive shooting progression from three, but L.A. faces a real crisis of identity with the Harden acquisition. He is right when he said he is a system and has never been happy being just a cog in the wheel. The problem is that only works when he’s the best on-ball option on the team. That isn’t the case in L.A., and the Clippers already have a system. His name is Kawhi Leonard.

In theory, the two could help each other, but Harden seems almost determined in the early going to prove he just doesn’t work as a complementary player. Ty Lue has responded by saying the Clippers need to play through Harden and adapt to him.

That’s exactly what Harden wants and will probably bring his level up, but it also requires two better players (at this point of their careers) to be the ones doing the adapting and sacrificing. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the Harden system in Los Angeles. While it won’t be this bad all season, there is likely a ceiling on how successful this all can be.