May 23, 2024

Three months into very public, very stalled negotiations with Philadelphia to acquire James Harden, the Clippers felt a change in the 76ers’ tone by mid-October.

“The intensity of conversations turned up where, OK, it went from, ‘There’s really nothing here’ to, ‘OK, there could be something here,’” said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations.

Harden asked out of Philadelphia in late June, with the Clippers his preferred destination all along, a fact that was well known. The Clippers do not typically hold trade talks under such a microscope, their past pursuits characterized as playing out by stealth instead of online. The wait, unusual circumstances and cost — trading away four players and multiple draft picks — were well worth it, the team said.

They maintained their interest all summer because they were convinced the 34-year-old former most valuable player has a championship goal, and willingness to sacrifice, which they believe aligns with the rest of his new team.

“He’s a 10-time All-Star, he has an elite skill set and all he cares about is one thing: He wants to win a championship for the L.A. Clippers,” Frank said Wednesday in his first comments since the trade was agreed to late Monday.

“He wants to be part of something bigger than himself. He’s had all the individual awards. He’s about doing something really special.”

Harden, who will be formally introduced Thursday, watched Wednesday’s game against the Lakers from the bench in street clothes, seated in the first chair next to the coaching staff. He is expected to debut during a three-game road trip next week that begins with two games in New York. The Clippers will treat their next four days off as a condensed training camp to work Harden and veteran forward P.J. Tucker, another part of the deal who made his debut against the Lakers, into their schemes.

A former league leader in scoring and assists who changed the way offense is played in the NBA with his ability to draw free throws and shoot step-back three-pointers, Harden has an imprimatur that is unquestioned.

“I think there was a stat where he got his teammates last year 350 open shots just by running pick and roll, by getting penetration to the paint and making plays,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “…We need his passing ability. So it’d be really good for us.”

Also unquestioned are two elements that gave some rival executives and scouts pause when hearing the Clippers parted with four players and multiple draft picks or pick swaps. Harden has asked out of his last three stops, and his departure from Philadelphia came after he called the 76ers’ top basketball executive, Daryl Morey, a “liar.” And Harden will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The Clippers discussed other trades for veteran guards Malcolm Brogdon and Jrue Holiday in the offseason that could have eliminated the possibility of adding Harden, but as those pursuits fell short, Harden remained a possibility.

“I always looked at as we were monitoring the situation,” Frank told The Times. “This was an issue between James and the Sixers. We got pulled into it, but that was it; it was really an issue with James and Philly.”

Harden has long impressed Clippers executives as a “ceiling raiser” who has never missed the postseason, his teams traditionally earning high seeds. The Clippers want to earn a top-three seed; the last 28 champions all have been the third seed or better.

But Harden, like the Clippers, has yet to reach the NBA’s pinnacle and the star has a history of postseason struggles. Surrounding him with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook, however, the Clippers believe they will see the best version of their new guard and, with it, themselves.

Clippers guard James Harden celebrates during a timeout as forward Paul George walks back to the bench.

Clippers guard James Harden, second from left, celebrates during a timeout as forward Paul George, second from right, walks back to the bench during the first half against the Lakers Wednesday at Arena.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“We’re not asking him to carry the team, we’re asking him to fit and complement with Paul, Kawhi, Russ and the rest of the guys,” Frank told The Times. “If you’re going to knock him for some playoff performance, then you also have to give him credit that without him the Sixers don’t win two games [last postseason]. What’d he score, 45 and 42 [against Boston in the second round]?

“So we’re not asking him to carry the team to four wins. We’re asking him to contribute to every one of the games. We’re gonna be able to share the burden and the load that comes with trying to win playoff games. So we just felt, look, with his passing, high IQ, he’s shown that he can do it, he takes pride in doing it. And he also can score. You need him to score, he can obviously do that. He’s a very, very unique player who helped change, you know, over the last 10 to 12 years of how the game looks.”

Lakewood Artesia High‘s Harden joins Westbrook, Leonard and George as former Southern California prep stars. How four players who thrive with the ball in their hands fit together is a critical unknown on which their success or failure will hinge. It is why the Clippers felt the need to not wait longer to land Harden, knowing they stood a better chance doing so four games into the season than more than halfway, at February’s trade deadline.

“Sacrifice is going to be the biggest thing,” Lue said. “… That’s all we’re focused on and they’re going to take a lot of sacrifice, whether it’s shots, whether it’s minutes, and they’re willing to do that. And so we’ve talked about all the right things and now it’s my job, just to make sure I put the pieces in the right spot to make sure we’re successful.”

Through Harden’s brief time playing in Brooklyn alongside fellow stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and in Philadelphia setting up center Joel Embiid en route to Embiid’s most valuable player award last season, Frank said he saw evidence Harden could mold his game to fit the Clippers’ needs.

“He, like Kawhi, like Paul, like Russ, they’re all at the right stages of their career, where there’s one common goal because these guys, they have all the individual accomplishments,” Frank said. “They’ve made plenty of money. This is about one goal. And just the uniqueness of the opportunity to have four guys from Los Angeles, who grew up within a couple years of each other to be able to come to a place that they want to be at, and to do something that’s never been done before for the Clippers organization.”

Frank pushed back against the suggestion Harden was added as insurance in case Leonard and George are injured or sit out. It was done to win a championship and “we’re only going to do that if everyone’s at their best,” Frank said.

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