In a move that always felt like a matter of if and not when, the L.A. Clippers traded for James Harden in the early hours of Monday morning. The deal bringing to an end Harden’s time with the Philadelphia 76ers and a General Manager in Daryl Morey who brought him to that franchise.
The relationship between the two deteriorating beyond repair this offseason when Harden had some very public and not very nice things to say about Morey, whom he also had had great success with while they were together with the Houston Rockets in the past.
The move looks like a win for the Clippers considering what they gave up, but James Harden does not put that organization over the Phoenix Suns in the West.
That may seem hard to believe on the surface, especially with the Suns having only gotten one game out of Devin Booker so far because of a foot injury, and none at all from summer addition Bradley Beal. A tweak in his back continuing to be monitored with caution by the team.
But it seems only fair that the Clippers are treated the same way the Suns have been with the “Big 3” they have assembled, plus center Jusuf Nurkic who himself has had his fair share of injuries. To be fair to the Clippers, adding Harden for the below assortment of players and picks is a win because they held onto Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and most interestingly, Russell Westbrook.
But Leonard has played 224 out of a possible 492 regular season games going all the way back to 2018. That includes the three games he has played this season, and also takes into account the entire 2021-22 campaign that was missed because of an ACL injury.
It hasn’t been much better for George, who has played only 56 regular season games once going back to the 2019-20 season (that came last year). This is the fifth year that the star duo have been in Los Angeles together, with only one Western Conference Finals appearance to show for it.
On the other hand, this is only the first season of the Booker, Beal and Kevin Durant era in The Valley, yet they are already being written off because of injury. Make no mistake, this season has not started under ideal circumstances, especially with Beal.
But if the Suns were penalized this summer for building around a 35-year-old Durant and a pair of stars who have already missed time, then shouldn’t the Clippers be as well? The Suns also did a really nice job of adding depth to their rotation with next to no cap space, with Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe and the returned Josh Okogie already proving their worth in the early goings.
The Clippers have instead opted to trade much of their depth in favor of a player in Harden who comes with a whole host of baggage. He has quit on more teams (the Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and now 76ers) than Beal and Booker have played for combined, and has a history of saying the right things and looking good initially, before reverting back to his old playing style before long.
Then there is the question of Russell Westbrook, a player who Harden played with before in Houston and where the fit was… clunky. Westbrook enjoyed a mini revival with the Clippers when he landed there late last season, and was enjoying having his moments on that team when they came his way.
The introduction of Harden complicates that, and it remains to be seen how that foursome can play together in an important game. Harden is an elite passer and a player who can do wonderful things with the ball in hand offensively, and it is true that both George and Leonard can work well in that scenario. For Westbrook though, he may once again end up the odd man out.
But if the Clippers right now are being judged solely on “what ifs” and how they look on paper, then they need to be viewed in the same way as the Suns. Everything could break right for the Clippers – much like it could the Suns- but that is an optimistic view and it takes into account that injury-prone players are going to be there when needed.
Say what you want about Durant, Booker and Beal, all three of them are more durable than both George and Leonard. Harden is now 34-years-old, and it would be fair to say his excursions off the court aren’t going to help his longevity in the league. Even Durant, who clearly loves the game like few others, has looked mortal with some of his missed shots so far early in the season.
It is the Denver Nuggets then who remain the gold standard in the West, and the addition of Harden to the Clippers should do little to make the Suns nervous. Both are built on superstars who have missed time in the past, but it is the Suns who have a trio that fits better than the Clippers’ three plus Westbrook. Combine that with the Suns’ current depth, and they’re still ahead here.