How the Clippers have evolved since the James Harden trade

The Los Angeles Clippers have finally found their stride with James Harden. Here's how they finally made it work.

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Clippers
Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Clippers / Harry How/GettyImages

What a difference a month makes.

One month ago, Nov. 6 to be exact, the Los Angeles Clippers played their first game with their newly formed big three of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and James Harden at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks. They lost, 111-97, with Julius Randle (27 points, 10 rebounds) and RJ Barrett (26 points) leading the way for the Knicks. Paul George struggled, shooting 2-of-11 on the road for 10 points, and no one for the Clippers scored over 20 points. That would be the first of five consecutive losses with this new trio, which led to expectations tanking.

However, the Clippers have bounced back, finally looking the part of the contender and demonstrating why they gambled on the Harden trade. The highlight was a full circle moment — beating the same Knicks team they first lost to.

New York was in the second leg of a back-to-back, but Jalen Brunson had scored 50 points while only missing six shots (and went 9-of-9 from beyond the arc). Whether it was the five-hour drive from Phoenix to LA or the Clippers' elite defense and much-improved offense, the rest of the Knicks didn't have much to offer and the Clippers came away with a 144-122 win.

Both Brunson and Randle were capped at 22 points, and two Clippers went off with Leonard scoring a dominant 36 points on an insane 12-of-16 from the field, while George had 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Five other players scored in double figures, including Harden who had a double-double (10 points, 12 assists). The 144-point mark is the highest they've reached this season. The win was the Clippers seventh in a row, and it comes after a 5-8 (0-5 in first five) start with Harden on the squad.

Everyone was right in criticizing their faults amidst their struggles. And now, we should also stop to praise how they've turned it around

Lineup changes

The question with LA has never been their defense because no matter the personnel it's been good. For the season, they rank seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions, and fifth in opponent field goal percentage. The side they've had trouble with since Harden joined is the offense.

Some might think it's surprising, given how Harden is a downgrade defensively from the pieces they traded in that move and is a top-five offense by himself. However, it should be noted that incorporating a star of his caliber in the middle of a season can be a challenge.

It showed at the start as, during their 5-8 start, they averaged just 112.1 points per 100 possessions, which for the season would rank in the bottom five. But, in their seven-game winning streak, it has clicked on another level with them averaging 123.8 points per game, fourth-most in the NBA with the second-best point differential and second-best field goal percentage in that span. How they've changed this is a sign of evolution by everyone involved.

For starters (pun intended), the starting lineup changed with Russell Westbrook himself asking to be a reserve. He moved to a bench role and in came Terance Mann, who has started in the last 15 games and has been in the initial unit along with the superstar trio and Ivica Zubac for 14 of those (Dec, 14 vs Golden State being the exception, a game that George missed with injury). That move is the catalyst of their success, with them going 12-3 since the change.

Their new lineup has been stellar together: out of lineups that have played at least five games together in the last 15, this lineup has played the second-most minutes of any lineup, outscoring opponents by an average of 16.2 points per 100 possessions.

While, yes, Mann hasn't lit the world on fire in that period (7.5 points per on 43 percent from the field and 23 percent from beyond the arc), and has been worse than Westbrook on catch-and-shoot 3s this season, Mann is a better finisher and has hit more — shooting 32 percent from 3 during the seven-game streak, hitting at least two 3s in three of their last five games.

While Westbrook himself also hasn't played at a Sixth Man of the Year level, he's played his role well in short spurts, setting screens, managing the second unit, hitting timely shots, and bringing energy when it's required. With him playing mostly with the second unit, he has less pressure to hit open shots around the superstar trio. With the second unit, he can function more with the ball in his hands, making things better for everyone in both groups. The numbers back it up as well, as the quartet of Westbrook, Harden, George and Leonard has a minus-16.4 net rating in 96 minutes together, and only shot 27 percent from 3.

But while this was the biggest change, it wasn't the only one.

The team struggled to start with only having one healthy center in the lineup in Zubac, as Mason Plumlee has been out since Nov. 6 with a MCL sprain in his left knee. The Clippers rectified that by signing Daniel Theis, who was bought out by the Indiana Pacers. He hasn't been extraordinary but he's been a very solid backup big who can spread the floor consistently, has good feel, is a good passer and is a more mobile defender than Zubac. While with the starters they have a good roller and a vertical threat, Theis has been a needed change of pace.

But there was a bigger change in the frontcourt, and that was completely leaving P.J. Tucker out of the rotation. On Nov. 30, nine games ago, he was left out of the rotation in favor of Kobe Brown, and the rotation has stayed that way since then for good reason, as the Clippers are 8-1 since the switch. Beyond the general record, the impact has been notable when Tucker was in the rotation and on the court.

Generally, the Clippers have a minus-4.2 net rating with him on the court versus a plus-7.4 without him. It's understandable, as he hasn't been good from 3 in his time with LA (27.3 percent). If he isn't bringing that, then he doesn't do too much. Long gone are his Miami Heat days where he could be useful as a good screener and handoff hub that could play beyond just standing in the corner. But, alas, in this context not having him on is working, and that shouldn't change unless injuries arise. However we'll see if they move him (and what they get for him) before that scenario.

The Big Three has learned how to play together

No matter how many rotation adjustments Tyronn Lue made, the Clippers were only going to start playing better once Harden figured out how to play with Leonard and George. And right now they've found a rhythm.

The main factor in their fit has been Harden's willingness to attempt catch-and-shoot 3s. While it was rough at the start (can you blame a guy who's played a decade mainly in isolation?), he's grown tremendously in that regard. In their seven-game winning streak, Harden attempted two catch-and-shoot 3s per game, making 57 percent of them. For context, last season he only attempted 1.8 of those per game and shot them at a 41.1 percent clip. The year prior, only one such attempt per outing at 33 percent. Beyond that, he's lowered his pull-up attempts, the type of off-the-dribble contested jumpers that characterize him, attempting 3.1 of those on 41.9 percent in the winning streak. Those attempts were 5.3 last season at 37.6 percent.

Sure, some of that has to do with simply him playing more without the ball, with the focus being the chemistry of those three together more than just getting Harden going like it was in the first games. There's nothing wrong with that, as when a star player arrives on a new team they often get the majority of the touches. That honeymoon period is over, and now with the creation duties being more distributed, and Harden being less tentative when Leonard and George draw help and kick it to him, it's led to more comfort and success.

Harden's pick-and-roll chemistry with Zubac has improved, with Harden with more reps getting a better feel for when to throw the pocket pass, when to throw a lob, and when to hold to pass, for a re-screen or simply to kick it out. He was used to playing with Joel Embiid after all, to whom he could just throw a pocket pass at any place in the mid-range area and let Embiid create a bucket, regardless of the coverage played. With Zubac, like with other role players, he has to be more intent on getting them to the right spots going to the basket. Both have improved that two-man game very well, which has led to Zubac playing well (he's scored in double figures in 13 of the last 15 games), and a better flow in the halfcourt.

On a more straightforward note, Leonard has just turned it on recently. Even though there were concerns early on in the season with his relative struggles, he's picked it up lately in a big way: 29.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 59/57/91 shooting splits. He hasn't missed a game this season, and the better flow has helped him find a groove. While he still isn't dominating in isolation and probably isn't creating as much separation as many would hope, he's still getting to his spots, and has started to knock them down (that'll come with a superstar of his caliber). And the team has started to leverage the attention Harden and George draw to open up Leonard with screens and more purpose, rather than just dumping the ball to him and hoping for him to create something out of nothing.

It's been a nice ride, but there's still a lot of road to cover...

From being written off just five games into their tenure, the Clippers have turned their ship around and look to be well on their way to being a formidable force in the playoffs. That's weird ... it's almost like you have to give a team like this time to figure it out before you give up on them! That can be a strange thing to do sometimes (hope you got the sarcasm, and if not here's the disclaimer). Though it does look ironic coming from me.

Regardless of who wrote them off and who didn't, the Clippers are playing pretty close to the level they were advertised at, and still have room to grow — and we're just getting into Christmas. This is as ideal as it could've gotten for LA: they've stayed healthy for the most part, no egos have ruined the chemistry (to be decided depending on anything that happens with Tucker), everyone is starting to gel, and we're still early on in the season. And, judging by how things are shaking up in the West, they might have picked a perfect season to go all in:

  • The Memphis Grizzlies have fallen off without Ja Morant
  • The Golden State Warriors are imploding
  • Kevin Durant is cursed, which has led the Phoenix Suns star trio to be incapable of staying healthy for one full game
  • The New Orleans Pelicans are always either hurt or with Zion Williamson not maximizing his potential
  • The Los Angeles Lakers are a piece away from being a contender on the Clippers level, and currently, they don't have the consistent firepower to compete with them
  • The Sacramento Kings have been inconsistent on both ends
  • The Dallas Mavericks have comparable firepower but can't consistently defend (though that could go off the window if Luka Doncic decides he will score no matter how tightly he's guarded, which is the norm against the Clippers)
  • The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, while good, are unproven in a postseason scenario where the game slows down

With all of that what I'm trying to say is that the Clippers have as good a shot on paper competing with any top team in the West as presently constructed. They've always been good on paper, but never healthy nor complete enough to put it together. But now, though they could still add a wing before the playoffs, they have as good of a shot as they've ever had, and quite frankly as good as they might have moving forward.

With the CBA moving forward limiting what teams over the luxury tax can do in adding playing via the Mid-Level Exception and trades, this is the perfect opportunity for the Clippers to fulfill their purpose since pairing up Leonard and George in winning it all. All West teams are either incomplete or unproven, Harden will be a free agent this summer, and who knows what they might be able to do moving forward to make this roster as good as it is right now (with them being so over the cap and lacking young good players on rookie deals and picks to select them).

They have pieces to move to make an addition. If they aren't going to use him and he wants to play, they should for sure move Tucker, with which they could get a couple of useful players or second round picks to move for said players. The case is similar with Plumlee, who has lost his role as the backup big as Theis has taken his spotlight in his absence. Plumlee is still a serviceable big that can help out. 'Bones' Hyland, Brandon Boston Jr and Amir Coffey are young players that have shown flashes but aren't consistently in the rotation, and all of them could be moved either in a package or separately for a more proven piece.

The front office has options to mix and match, ideally without using a first-round pick (because they'll eventually need one for crying out loud) in order to add pieces that are missing. Ideally, it's a versatile ball-handler that can attack closeouts and knock down open shots consistently (throwing out possibilities: Gary Trent Jr, Otto Porter Jr, Cedi Osman, Torrey Craig, Patty Mills).

Whatever the route they took, right now it's safe to say that the gamble to acquire Harden has proven fruitful. However, as good as it looks right now, what will ultimately dictate if it's a success or not is if they make it to, at minimum, a competitive Western Conference Finals exit (and some would say that's giving them leeway). That will be the ultimate testament of their evolution.

All stats and rankings are current as of Dec. 17.

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