When James Harden requested a trade out of Philadelphia last offseason, there surprisingly weren't many buyers in his market. Harden is a former MVP. But most teams didn't want to give up valuable assets for a disgruntled star in the final year of an expensive contract.
The Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, kept an eye on the 76er guard throughout the summer. Three games into the 2023 season, the Clippers sent a collection of role players and draft picks for the reigning assist leader.
The Clippers had a good reason to make the trade. The duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have yet to provide the franchise its first championship due to injuries or playoff meltdowns. Harden would give the team additional all-star-level help for the core's possible last season together.
However, the new roster got off to the worst start possible. They lost six straight games immediately after the acquisition, falling to 3-7 overall.
The offense didn't have an ounce of rhythm. There was only one basketball to accommodate ball-dominant starters.
In particular, the backcourt pairing of Harden and Russell Westbrook noticeably failed to coexist. In his 111-97 debut loss to the New York Knicks, the former teammates logged 31 minutes each. However, they struggled to establish the team's primary facilitator when on the court together. With no floor general, the starting group took turns creating their own shot. The offense's flow suffered as a result.
Los Angeles finished the game with a season-high 22 turnovers, more than their assists (21). Westbrook contributed five turnovers of his own.
But head coach Ty Lue had faith in his team smoothing the bumps despite the alarming start. After their sixth-straight defeat, Lue asked Westbrook to come off the bench. And it's working.
Los Angeles has a 13-3 record with Harden as the starting point guard. The squad's eight victories in a row is the longest active winning streak in the league.
Flash-forward 40 days from losing to the Knicks, the Clippers beat New York 144-122. The offense showed an efficient flow with Harden at the helm and Russ playing just 15 minutes. The team produced 36 assists and only eight turnovers. Harden was responsible for 12 of those assists, along with 10 points.
The future Hall of Famer may not be the same scorer he was in Houston, but the 34-year-old is still one of the league's best playmakers. He led the association with 10.7 APG last season. Since becoming the point guard, he's been creating easy looks for teammates while limiting his shot attempts.
Leonard has immensely benefited from Harden's play creation. His efficiency plummeted in early November in the previous dysfunctional offense. The Claw averaged 22.6 PPG on 48.2/36.5/84.4 shooting splits last month. With Harden running the show this month, he's progressed to 29.3 PPG on an insane 62.3/54.8/95.1 split.
During the first 16 days post-Harden trade, the team ranked 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio. In the first 16 days of December, their assist-to-turnover ratio ranked sixth.
Not only did the Clippers' starting unit need time to gel together, but Harden also needed more reps himself. His previous game before his debut was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. That was in May. After the loss to the Knicks, he attributed his lack of shape to not being a full participant in training camp or preseason.
It's safe to say after last night's 151-127 win in Indiana, Harden is back to the 20 & 10 guy he was last season. In Los Angeles' first five losses with the Beard, he averaged 15 points and 4.2 assists per game. In December, he is averaging 20.1 points and nearly ten assists. Last week, he put on a vintage 28-point and 15-assist performance in a win without George against the Golden State Warriors.
The Clippers don't need Harden to be the game's leading scoring like he was last night. Although, he still left Indiana with nine assists. But if he can turn back to his old self in a given matchup, the team is an obvious contender.
Harden's Clippers have arrived at 16-10, currently the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. The offense has shown no sign of slowing down with him, winning five of their last six by double digits. We will remember Coach Lue's decision as season-saving.