Why Clippers' James Harden experiment is off to disastrous start

Prior to putting James Harden in their rotation, the Clippers were rolling. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George finally healthy together, they had the league’s fourth-best offensive rating and the fifth-best defensive rating. Only the Celtics and 76ers had a better net rating than their +11.6 points per 100 possessions

Since Harden entered the rotation four games ago, all of that has changed. They’re 0-4, plummeting to the No. 30 offense, the No. 25 defense and the third-worst net rating in the league during that four-game stretch.

Harden’s entry into the lineup is certainly a part of those problems. Why has he faltered so much, and is there any solution in sight for the Clippers? 

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There was a lot of skepticism about a ball-dominant player like Harden fitting into a team with three other ball-dominant players in Leonard, George and Russell Westbrook. Perhaps in order to combat that, Harden has changed his game significantly since joining up with the Clippers. 

One of the biggest complaints against Harden throughout his last few stops was that he refused to shoot catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. He’s a great shooter, and that would make him fit much better as an off-ball threat on the star-loaded teams that he’s been on.

Harden seems to have taken that to heart this season — he’s shooting way more of those attempts, and he’s nailing them. 

Off-ball, Harden has actually been pretty good! But on-ball, he’s been a bit of a disaster. He’s looked extremely passive, as stated by head coach Tyronn Lue after their loss to the Grizzlies on Sunday. 

“He’s being too polite,” Lue told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk.

“I think he’s doing too much to try to fit in. So that’s on me. Just yesterday we had a talk amongst the team and just he has to be James Harden. He led the league in assists the last two or three years, and making plays and what he does in the pick-and-roll, he’s great. So, we have to allow him to be himself.

“He doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, and I understand that just to have respect for PG, Kawhi, Russ, because they’ve been here. But we need James to be James, and so that’s on me to make sure I make him be James.”

Harden’s unfamiliarity with his teammates is evident when watching the team try to execute their half-court sets. Their timing on plays is very disjointed.

Some of that was probably to be expected given the lack of practice they’ve been afforded. But as of now, none of these players look comfortable playing with each other. 

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Put aside the fit with teammates issue for a second. There is a question of if Harden is physically capable of reaching last year’s modest level. His burst has been declining steadily for years.

This year is his worst yet in terms of driving — he looks like he has zero ability to get by players. Rather than taking players like Santi Aldama off the dribble, Harden is mostly settling for fadeaways or runners. Whereas in years prior, he was taking anywhere from a quarter to a third of his shots at the rim, he has incredibly not attempted a single shot within three feet all season.

This does not look anything like the old James Harden:

Whether this is a permanent change or a result of having zero training camp is unclear. But Lue did mention that Harden had to “get in better game shape.” His lack of conditioning has been readily apparent, where he’s struggled to get back on defense or let his man right by him

Despite the ugly possessions and losses, even an out-of-shape Harden is still a pretty good shooter. He’s hitting 47.2 percent of his looks overall, 36.8 percent of his 3s and hasn’t missed a free throw yet. There should still be some hope that the Clippers can make this work.

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