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Monday, May 20, 2024
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Bailey: How the Clippers found their missing piece

High-risk Harden trade has propelled Clippers into title conversation

Sometimes, all a person needs is that one missing piece. For Ryan Gosling in “Blade Runner 2049,” it was confirmation of his natural birth. For Ryan Gosling in “Barbie,” it was reciprocated romantic affection and approval. And if Ryan Gosling ever stars in a basketball flick, it would be perfectly placed pocket passes from James Harden.

When the Los Angeles Clippers acquired the yet-again disgruntled Harden on Oct. 31, they did so with the hope that the 2018 MVP had enough left in the tank to reinvigorate the stagnant, underachieving franchise and throw up the sash on their closed championship window.

Upon arriving in the City of Angels, Harden guaranteed that his contributions to the team would yield great postseason success. “I’m not a system player, I am a system,” he said.

Evidently, the Clippers struggled to effectively implement the Harden system, losing their first six games with him on the team. Since then, they have won 28 of their last 36 games, equivalent to a 64-win pace and the best record in the NBA during that span. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Clippers are second in the league in offensive rating (125.8) and have outscored teams by 15.2 points per 100 possessions excluding garbage time, giving them the second-best point differential in the league.

Harden’s resurgence has been a revelation, his on-ball creation skills leading the Clippers to the third seed in the Western Conference and consideration for the best team in the Association.

Similar to his play style in Brooklyn, Harden has embraced the point guard role for the Clippers, sacrificing his high usage and scoring for greater efficiency and team success. Much like Houston Harden, though, the offense often runs through multiple pick and roll progressions.

A maestro of the pick and roll, Harden has developed great synergy with center Ivica Zubac, often finding him coming off the screen in the middle of the paint for a spin and slam or at the cup for an easy lob. Once Zubac has been established as a roll threat with Harden, opposing defenses start creeping towards the paint and hedging screens, opening up skip passes to the corner for open three-point shooters. Though Harden has lost some burst on his first step driving to the basket, his immense strength allows him to barrel downhill through the lane, bounce off defenders and finish with finesse on a slick finger roll.

Of his 10.6 drives per game, Harden passes out of half of them, his highest percentage dating back to at least the 2013-14 season. The Beard has bought in on coach Ty Lue’s philosophy of individual sacrifice, completing his transformation from a Jordan-esque scorer to a pass-first guard responsible for organizing his team and attracting help on drives to generate open three-pointers.

Harden’s great size and strength also helps him as a passer from the elbow, much like Nikola Jokić or Domantas Sabonis, stifling opposing defenses with another offensive wrinkle. While operating from the elbow, Harden can more easily hit cutters like Paul George, who excels in an off-ball role. 

George frequently runs from one side of the court to another on an Iverson cut before transitioning into a backdoor cut. Harden whips the ball to George under the basket for an easy layup. When the Clippers run the same play later in the game, the defense switches to cover George on the backdoor, so he pops back out to hit a three at the top of the key.

Harden’s 20.4% usage rate is the lowest since his sophomore season in Oklahoma City. Similar to his years with the Thunder, Harden’s efficiency has skyrocketed, posting the second-highest true shooting percentage (63.9%) of his career and putting him on pace to shoot above 40% from three for the first time ever.

This increase in Harden’s offensive efficiency has helped ease the playmaking workload for George and allowed him to thrive as a shooter off the catch, with a career-high 58.4% of his made field goals coming off assists. Though his drives are down, he also projects to shoot a career-high 41.2% from three on 8.3 attempts per game. George’s spacing and Harden’s playmaking have also benefitted Kawhi Leonard, who is shooting 52.6% from the field, the highest clip of his career.

With Leonard only missing four games and George missing three since Harden joined the team on Nov. 6, the unprecedented health of this Clippers team has allowed for strong continuity to form. In the 667 minutes Harden, Leonard and George have shared on the hardwood, they have a plus-17.2 net rating, good for the best point differential among the 105 three-man combinations to log at least 500 minutes.

Harden’s role as the steadying ballast of the ship lies in his ability to lead the team as its on-ball playmaker who excels in quickly reading the defense to make making the pass to find the open man. His addition to the Clippers prevents them from over-relying on George and Leonard, allowing them to stay fresh and healthy for a dominant playoff run. For the first time since the NBA shut down due to the pandemic, the Los Angeles Clippers are taking their opponents seriously during the regular season, ferociously competing night in and night out for the top seed in the West to prove they deserve to be title favorites.

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