James Harden is excited to be a Los Angeles Clipper and was clear about that at his introductory press conference on Thursday. He is hoping to make his debut with the team on Monday in Madison Square Garden.
However, especially as the conversation drifted toward his time in Philadelphia, Harden said a couple of things that turned heads. The first was when asked about being a facilitator — something the Clippers will ask Harden to do a lot playing next to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — versus him as a scorer like he was in Houston (quote via Law Murray at The Athletic).
"Whatever T. Lue and their coaching staff needs me to do, I've been prepared and been in both situations. I think the game and I'm a creator on the court, you know what I mean? So if I got a voice to where I can say, 'Hey, coach, I see this. What you think about this?' Then it's like, okay. Somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me. That I'm just not —
"I'm not a system player. I am a system.”
The other eye-popping thing Harden said was about how he was used in Philadelphia by coach Doc Rivers.
James Harden on his Sixers situation:
“Philly is just changing my role knowing I can give more, knowing I can do more, but if you want me to be honest, it's like being on a leash... I never really had that opportunity [to score and facilitate freely].”pic.twitter.com/EX2zoE3dTv
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) November 2, 2023
"Philly is just changing my role knowing I can give more, knowing I can do more, but if you want me to be honest, it's like being on a leash. Like me knowing, in order for us to get where we want to get to, I was gonna have to be playing my best offensively, whether it's facilitating and scoring the basketball, and Joel as well. I never really had that opportunity as well."
After the 76ers beat the Raptors on Thursday night, Joel Embiid was asked about Harden saying he was on a leash with the 76ers and never really had the opportunity to be himself. Quote via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:
"I don't think so. I think he did a lot of great things for us. But in my opinion, we gave him the ball every single possession, because he's really good. He's an amazing player. Obviously, being that great of a passer, I think we gave him the ball ... we'd give him the ball every single possession to just go out and, you know, do his thing. And from there he had to make decisions as far as getting guys open or looking out for himself.
"But I thought he did a pretty good job of getting us into an offense and just passing the ball, getting guys open. That's the reason why he won the assist title last year."
The Clippers need Harden to fit into their system, not be his own.
That puts pressure on coach Tyronn Lue, one of the best in the league at communicating with players, getting them to know and understand what the team needs from them, but doing it in a way the players respect. The Clippers need Harden’s passing more than his scoring. Los Angeles already has a top-five offense in the NBA this young season and Kawhi Leonard has been a force, the problem is their offense can drift toward defendable isolation basketball at points and they need Harden's vision and ball movement to snap them out of that, the points will come.
If Harden can fill that role — and if a Clippers core where all the players are over 30 and have lengthy injury histories can stay healthy — Los Angeles can be a threat in the West. That's a lot of things that have to go right and there is not much margin for error, but the outcome could be spectacular for Los Angeles.