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That’s Why You Make The James Harden Trade

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 21: James Harden #1 of the LA Clippers is interviewed by the media after Round 1 Game 1 of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on April 21, 2024 at Crypto.Com Arena 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

After hitting arguably the highest level of any Western Conference team this season and sustaining it for two months, the Los Angeles Clippers went just 15-14 after the all-star break, a swoon that corresponded with and was precipitated by James Harden's horrid end to the season. The Clippers were plus-12.5 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor in December and an unkillable plus-20 per 100 with in January. He then logged three straight months of negative play, finishing with 32 percent shooting from the field in April. Harden appeared tired and faintly uninterested as his team tumbled from the one seed to the four seed, guaranteeing them a trilogy rematch against the Mavericks, the hottest team in basketball. Once news dropped on Sunday that Kawhi Leonard would miss Game 1, they seemed doomed.

Instead, Harden had his best game in months and the Clippers took Game 1. He initiated the offense with deadly efficiency, getting by the Mavericks' point-of-attack defenders whenever he attacked and sending Dallas scrambling. The Clippers do not shoot threes at volume, played the whole game with a center, and were missing their best three-point shooter, so the only way they were going to get their offense moving was through Harden going point guard mode, and the only they were going to be able to hang with the Mavericks' flame-throwing offense was for Harden to hit threes. He happily obliged on both fronts.

Harden needed one quarter-sized chunk of time to turn the game into a blowout. With things somewhat stuck in the mud midway through the first quarter, Harden began attacking Luka Doncic and Maxi Kleber on switches, cashing three threes and opening up a 12-point lead. After checking back in up 13 halfway through the second, Harden went right back to work, nailing another three, getting to the line, and roasting poor Tim Hardaway, Jr. He scored 20 in this pair of bursts and capped his big second quarter off with a flying alley-oop to Russell Westbrook.

While Harden was running the show, the Mavericks were playing some of the nastiest basketball you'll see all playoffs, scoring four points in the last 8:30 of the first half. Some of that is shooting luck, though they were clearly uncomfortable with the level of physicality and pressure L.A. was playing with. Terance Mann stayed home on Doncic's pump fakes, while Ivica Zubac dominated whichever young center the Mavericks threw at him. Dallas enjoyed slightly more success with Kleber in at center, though those lineups struggled on the glass. Eventually, Irving got cooking in the third, and Doncic started hitting his shots, though each time the Mavericks threatened to cut the lead to single digits, the Clippers showed their veteran savvy by calmly reining the game back under control, a process that usually began with Harden touching the paint and spraying it out, and formally ended when Harden nailed a three to end a 10-2 Mavs run.

Leonard played by far the most regular-season minutes of his Clippers tenure, and had the best shooting season of his career this season. Under those circumstances, it was impossible not to feel that familiar Clippers pessimism once word that he would miss Game 1 got out. We've seen how juiceless and dead the Clippers looked against the Suns last year and in 2021 once Leonard went down, not to mention how mediocre they were in 2021-22 without him. The theory behind the Harden trade was formed in reaction to those specific instances of juicelessness. If you cannot rely on your best player's knees to hold up against the passage of time and ravages of NBA basketball, and if your team turns into a big group of pumpkins who can't pass or shoot without him, simply acquire one of the most reliable one-man offensive engines in the NBA.

Where Paul George is maybe the best complementary star in the league, the downside of someone like that is that there's a hard cap on his utility if he's initiating everything, too. The Clippers were at their best this year with Harden serving primarily as a facilitator and secondary ballhandler, though he's led elite NBA offenses for a decade, and he is still probably most comfortable as a kind of supercharged point guard. He logged eight assists, but Ivica Zubac, Russell Westbrook, and Mann combining for an efficient collective 46 points is downstream of Harden running things with an expert hand. Hopefully he will not have to do this without Leonard for too much longer, because the other promise of the Harden trade was about what this team could do in a playoff environment. Few teams, and certainly not the Clippers' current opponent, are set up to handle three players mismatch-hunting or even cooking one-on-one, and after so many agonizing moments of bad timing, I want to see the full-throttle Clippers.

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