May 28, 2024

Just before practice began, the Clippers’ point guard leaned forward in his chair, watching as an assistant drew a marker across a whiteboard.

The conversation between the staffer and the superstar, James Harden, was over in minutes, and entirely possible to overlook — except that as soon as Harden joined the team, the former NBA most valuable player made it clear he wanted interactions just like this.

When Harden said during his introductory news conference that he wanted a “voice” and “dialogue” with his new coaches, he was saying he did not want to be just a player executing plays, but a partner in crafting them. The Clippers were listening.

In the three weeks since Harden arrived, the team has engaged in what he and coach Tyronn Lue described as “constant communication” — “every … single … day,” Harden said, pausing for emphasis — aimed at getting him up to speed, as coaches would with any other new addition, while also giving him a hand in a process Harden called “fun.”

“They just allow me to get creative and read the defenses and see what they’re doing on the defensive floor, and every game is different to where [Lue] sees something and I’m allowed to sit back and do it,” Harden said after Monday’s win against San Antonio.

“I’ve earned that respect and proven that I’m able to do that. I’ve had different guys guard me and different teams prepare and guard me in different ways, probably more than any other guard has ever seen before.”

Harden, who had been traded during the season twice before, to Brooklyn in 2021 and to Philadelphia in 2022, likened getting on the same page with the Clippers to his experience of joining Brooklyn and acclimating with fellow stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the fly.

“Not so much Philly at all, but definitely similar to Brooklyn to where [Lue] just allows me to be myself. And obviously he has certain plays and things he draws up after timeouts and whatnot, but we have our concepts. Obviously we know when [Kawhi Leonard] got it going, and [Paul George] got it going or in the pick and roll we’re generating really efficient shots.

“It’s pretty simple. It’s a game.”

Clippers' Russell Westbrook, left, acknowledges James Harden in a game against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 20, 2023.

Russell Westbrook, left, and James Harden acknowledge each other during the Clippers’ victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.

(Logan Riely / NBAE via Getty Images)

Lue said Harden’s desire for interaction was “no different” than in his experiences coaching such stars as LeBron James and Clippers teammates George, Leonard and Russell Westbrook, who “all want to have a relationship and constant communication with the head coach and just try to figure out what they see, what the coach sees and how we can put it all together.”

While winning two straight games, the Clippers have begun to look more comfortable. After routing San Antonio, Harden walked through the locker room bobbing his head to a song. Leonard told reporters Harden “makes the game a lot easier for me, gets me wide-open looks and that’s all I can ask for.”

Said George: “It was moreso us just being thrown in the fire, figuring it out through games, through practice time and film. Honestly, that’s where the adjustments were made where guys started to feel more comfortable.”

It took seven games to reach this point. Harden’s vast experience leading the league in scoring as recently as 2020, and in assists last season, didn’t afford a shorter learning curve as the Clippers (5-7) lost their first five games after he joined the lineup. The issue wasn’t talent, but what to do with all of it: Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook, all first-option scorers for the last decade, had to redefine their roles while in the same lineup, often with jumbled results.

For Harden, that meant playing more often without the ball and hearing coaches’ directives to shoot when he turned down open spot-up jumpers. Harden’s career usage rate of 29.9% — the percentage of possessions a player ends with either a field-goal attempt, free throw or turnover — ranks 11th-highest in NBA history. In his first five games with the Clippers as part of a four-star lineup, it plunged to 19%. (Westbrook, whose 31.8% usage rate ranks fourth-highest all-time, dipped to 26% in the same span.)

The Clippers were talking plenty with Harden. Lue’s challenge was to cut down the noise and “just simplifying the offense for him just to make sure he’s not on the floor thinking, he’s just playing off of instincts,” the coach said.

When Westbrook moved out of the lineup in favor of Terance Mann last week, ballhandling responsibilities and Harden’s role became clearer. Though anyone can bring the ball up when an opponent misses a shot, it’s now almost exclusively Harden’s job off of inbounds passes.

“The job has changed a little bit,” Leonard said. “Now I’ve got more energy on the defensive end, but when my number is called, I gotta be ready to attack and create plays for my teammates, so it’s a little different dynamic getting used to instead of me bringing it up or calling every play for me coming up the court. We got another player that could do the same and make it easier.”

A team that started training camp preaching movement and cutting has begun to shape its offense around Harden’s feel, particularly in his preferred pick and rolls. Harden has tried ironing out pick and rolls with center Ivica Zubac through “working out a few times after practices, before practices, before flights, shootarounds,” Zubac said.

The extra work was needed because of the stylistic difference between Harden and Westbrook, the ballhandler he worked with last season and all through training camp, who is “more speed beating that under and getting downhill making the play,” Lue said. “And James is more taking his time, getting to his spot and you go under, he stops, rescreens and makes the play. Two different guys, two different style of players.”

Though Harden is scoring in the paint at a fraction of his peak-MVP form — 10% of his shots have come within three feet of the rim this season, compared to his career average of 26% — his 35.9% three-point accuracy is decimal points off his career average and has created more space as defenders still feel it necessary to go over the top of screens.

“I played with a lot of point guards, a lot of great passers that I couldn’t really run pick and roll with because people kept going under [screens] so we didn’t really go to it much,” Zubac said. “With James, he can shoot it so well people got to go over and he’s so good with the ball and defense focuses on him so much in the pick and roll, it makes my job much easier.”

Believing the Clippers value his insights has, in turn, made Harden’s transition easier. When he has felt most comfortable with the team, the moments have stemmed from “defensively, it can be passing the ball, scoring — just knowing that I’m involved,” he said. “It’s pretty easy when I’m involved.”

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