LOS ANGELES — James Harden was sitting on the Clippers bench Wednesday night, in street clothes, watching the Clippers offense devolve during the third quarter into a series of isolations that the Lakers could predict and defend with their big lineup. At that moment, the Clippers needed passing, different playmaking, and someone to change the dynamic as their 13-point halftime lead drained away in a game the Clippers would eventually lose to LeBron James and company in overtime.
Through that loss, did Clippers coach Tyrone Lue see moments he could have used Harden?
"I saw it for 53 minutes," Lue said.
The Clippers head into four days off where they will practice and start to integrate Harden into his new team, one that needs his skill set. The Clippers believe that with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and now Harden they have a chance at a ring, and president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank called Harden "a ceiling raiser.”
"James Harden has an elite skillset and all he cares about is one thing: He wants to win a championship for the L.A. Clippers," Frank said. "He wants to be part of something bigger than himself.”
The Clippers gave up a first-round pick and a lot of depth to land Harden in a trade with the 76ers. Frank pushed back hard on the idea the Clippers made that move so Harden could be an "innings eater" — someone to help Leonard and George get plenty of rest so they make it to the playoffs healthy.
"The Kawhi and PG 'rest' thing is kind of bulls***," Frank said. "There's a difference between injuries and rest. Kawhi and Paul, last year, were injured. These guys work extremely hard.”
What Harden brings to the table that the Clippers need is passing — as happened against the Lakers, they can fall into the trap of isolations, something Harden has been prone to do at points in his career. However, Harden adjusted his game in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and the Clippers are confident he will continue down that path and be the distributor and playmaker they need.
"He's a 10-time All-Star, was the MVP, but he's a dynamic pick-and-roll player…" Lue said. "I think it was established he got his teammates last year 350 open shots just by running the pick-and-roll, by getting penetration to the paint and making plays. And he led the league in assists the last couple of years and we need his passing ability.”
Lue and Leonard talked about this Clippers team being mature and focused enough that guys will make sacrifices to reach their goals.
"Sacrifice is gonna be the biggest thing," Lue said of making it work with a team full of stars. "The guys we have, four guys from L.A. and four guys have done a lot in their career. So they understand that we've talked about just winning the championship, that's what we're focused on, and it's gonna take a lot of sacrifice, whether shots, whether it's minutes, and they're willing to do that.”
They say they're willing to do it, but the Clippers' four stars will have to prove it — it's easy to say you'll sacrifice but it's another thing when guys have to do it. Westbrook has made those sacrifices in Los Angeles, Leonard has made sacrifices to win his two rings, but is everyone willing to do it again?
"James is a superstar, proven that year after year," Paul George said. "Another playmaker, another scorer, leader really happy to have him here.”
Lue said they will make the sacrifices because of a shared goal.
"Winning a championship," Lue said. "That's [Harden's] main goal the main focus and you know he's always sacrificed. When he went to Philly he sacrificed, when he was in Brooklyn with KD [Kevin Durant] and Kyrie [Irving] he sacrificed to lead a team and focus on assists, and he led the league in assists. So he showed he can sacrifice and so with the team that we have you know, everyone's had to sacrifice for us — PG, Kawhi, along with James and so he understands that I think he's done it the most.”
With Harden, the Clippers move into a "if everything goes right" tier of contenders. Denver and Boston have a margin for error where some things can go wrong and they are still in the mix to win it all, but for the Clippers — and Lakers, Warriors and others — there is no margin for error. Not even with Harden in Los Angeles. A lot of things, health chief among them, have to go right for them to have their shot at a ring.
But we're saying there's a chance. That's all the Clippers can ask for and why they made the trade.