The trade we’ve been talking about since July but had dragged on so long that it became the boy who cried wolf of transactions has finally happened: James Harden is going to be a Los Angeles Clipper.
On the surface everyone can save face with this trade and say they got what they wanted: Daryl Morey got his two first-round picks plus some expiring contracts that don't touch his precious cap space next summer; the Clippers only gave up one pick — the other comes from Oklahoma City, this is a three-team deal — and they hold on to Terance Mann.
But who really won and lost? Let's break it down, starting with the trade itself:
The Philadelphia 76ers receive the Clippers' 2026 first-round pick protected (via Oklahoma City), the Clippers' 2028 first-round pick unprotected, two second-round picks, a 2029 pick swap, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris and Kenyon Martin Jr.
The Los Angeles Clippers receive James Harden (who waived his $5.1 million trade bonus to get this done), P.J. Tucker, and Filip Petrusev
The Oklahoma City Thunder receive a 2027 pick swap with the Clippers
Winner: City of Los Angeles basketball
James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the four biggest names and maybe the four best players out of the Los Angeles area in the NBA right now. When Leonard and Paul are introduced pregame at Crypto.com Arena, it's not their colleges that are announced but their cities — "From Palmdale California…" — to emphasize why they came home. (For the record, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan would be the honorable mentions on the best from L.A. list right now.)
For a Clippers team always trying to break out of the shadow of the established franchise with the banners whose locker room is down the hall (for one last season), this is it — Los Angeles' best trying to bring a title to the city. It's not going to win over Lakers fans, but that was never going to happen anyway, what it can do is help carve out its own fan base in a city big enough to support two teams.
Winner: James Harden
Harden is a winner because he got what he wanted: Out of Philadelphia and to Los Angeles on a team that — if everything breaks just right — can compete for a title.
This could become a "be careful what you wish for" lesson for Harden. He wanted off of a contender in Philadelphia in large part because they wouldn't pay him what he expected (after he took a financial hit the season before to help the franchise). He wanted to go to the Clippers, where he believes this team can contend and Steve Ballmer will pay him.
Well, this team can contend if a quartet of older, injury-prone guys can stay out of the training room and find the fountain of youth in the playoffs, but a lot of things have to go right. As for the money, owner Steve Baller has to decide if he wants to pay to keep this core together — that's an ownership level decision, not one just for the front office — and if so, for how long. Harden will have to play at an All-Star level this season as a point guard to make anywhere near what he wants (he did that last season but got snubbed). Even then, this dragged-out trade saga shows the market for him around the league is lukewarm. At best. The money he wants may not be there from the Clippers or anyone else.
If Harden wants to stay in Los Angeles and get paid, he will have to show out.
Staying the same: The Philadelphia 76ers
Did Philadelphia get better with this trade? Any closer to Boston and Milwaukee at the top of the East? I don't see it. They didn't get worse, they may be the third-best team in the East, but they didn't get better.
There are positives in this trade for Philadelphia. First, the saga is over and everyone can move on. Beyond that, it keeps the ball in Tyrese Maxey's hands (he's been brilliant in the first week of the season), and all those veteran players such as Batum and Martin provide depth — plus all those expiring contracts are the kind that can be traded at the deadline for a player the 76ers want. However, for right now, they are cruising at the same speed they were before the trade.
Potential loser: Daryl Morey
This had better work out. The veteran reserves next to Joel Embiid, the cap space hoarded for next summer to chase a star, all of it. If not, Morey will have a lot more time to head to the theater and see musicals.
Morey went all in to get his buddy from Houston to come to Philadelphia, only to find this reunion was not going to work as he had planned. Then Harden pushed his way out of town (who could have seen that coming?). Now the entire league has their eyes on Joel Embiid to see if he gets frustrated with Morey's process and asks out. So far, Embiid has kept his head down and put up numbers to start this season that match his MVP campaign, but if things go sideways it's Morey who takes the fall. Talk to people around the league and there are plenty who think Morey's days in Philly are numbered either way.
Winner: Tyrese Maxey
Maxey, thrust into the role of primary shot creator with Harden out this season, has made a leap —30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game so far.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić and Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey have been named the NBA Western and Eastern Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for Week 1 of the 2023-24 season (Oct. 24-29). pic.twitter.com/xRU82VwFMC
— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) October 30, 2023
He looks like an All-Star and the guy who should have the ball in his hands in Philadelphia. Now that Harden is out of town, there is no one for him to share primary playmaking duties with.
Keep playing like this and not only are the 76ers dangerous come the playoffs, but Maxey is locking in that max extension with an eye towards a super-max if he can make an All-NBA team.
Winner short term: Los Angeles Clippers
It's the fifth year of the Leonard/George era and all the Clippers have to show for it is one trip to the conference finals — this is as win now a team as there is in the NBA. Russell Westbrook has surprised many of us and given this team a genuine boost, finding a home with the Clippers where he fits well on the court. Harden, a superior passer and far more dangerous 3-point threat than Westbrook, can add to that fit next to the team's elite wings. The Clippers can roll out some dangerous small-ball lineups now with Harden, George and Leonard.
On paper, Harden and his playmaking make the Clippers a real threat in the West. However, they are still on the "a lot of things have to go right" championship tier — Leonard and this aging core have to stay healthy, Harden has to mesh with this group and then step up with a big, consistent playoff run. Even saying all that, with Los Angeles' roster where it was, this was a good move for this season.
Loser long term: The Los Angeles Clippers
Where does this franchise go from here? Harden is a free agent after this season while George, Leonard, Westbrook and the just-acquired Tucker all have player options for next season and could walk.
There are two paths for Los Angeles. One, the Clippers get serious in extension talks with Leonard and George, reach a deal with Harden next summer and keep the band back together. Does two or three more seasons after this one built around this aging, brittle group sound like a good idea? Or, this summer the Clippers could move on from all of them and start a rebuild, which gets challenging as they have traded away a lot of draft picks to try and make this roster work, making any rebuild likely a lengthy process.
Moving into the new Intuit Dome next season may make the decision for Ballmer, he may run it back short term not to enter his new building in the middle of a rebuild. However, a few more years of this core is not a winner.