Clippers coach Tyronn Lue gathered his players around him at practice on Saturday to tell them James Harden had free rein to be who he is, that Harden shouldn’t defer to teammates out of respect or on the basis of seniority. Harden being Harden would help all of them, Lue said, bringing to the court another creator who could give teammates open shots. It was a strategic move, designed to make a point.
Four games into Harden’s Clippers career, it’s difficult to define what he is or what he and the Clippers can become. So far, they’re winless with him in the lineup and he has compiled a negative plus/minus rating in each game he has played, starting with minus-18 in his Clippers debut against the New York Knicks, minus-15 at Brooklyn, and minus-6 at Dallas before dropping to minus-28 on Sunday.
The Clippers extended their losing streak to five with an inconsistent, often ugly 105-101 loss to the league-worst Memphis Grizzlies in Harden’s home Clippers debut. He scored 11 points on off four-for-12 shooting but that minus-28 was alarming, proof of how rocky it has been for him to find a comfortable niche in the starting lineup. Or in the lineup, at all.
“Hopefully very, very soon we’ll figure it out,” he said. “It’s not about today. It’s been the last couple games. Trying to find what works for us and trying to take advantage of opportunities and things like that. It’s an accumulation of everything — transition, defense, generating really good shots possession by possession and for me individually when I do get opportunities, being aggressive and making the right basketball play.
“We’re all in this together. It’s not just one person. We’re all trying to figure it out together.”
Accelerating that search should be their primary concern.
“I saw some intriguing things,” Lue said, “but we’ve just got to be better.”
While it’s unrealistic to expect Harden would make a seamless transition from Philadelphia, the Clippers’ eternal requests for patience and their promises of better days coming on some misty, distant day have a distinctly hollow ring.
Will it ever be their time? If not now, when?
Lob City was going to win them their elusive first NBA title, until it didn’t. Uniting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was going to do it. Nope.
Bringing in Russell Westbrook last season was going to do the trick. After losing their first five games with him in their lineup, they found ways for him to be far more effective than he was during his difficult stay with the Lakers, but he wasn’t the answer, either, and they lost in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix.
Now, it’s Harden, a 10-time All Star, who’s supposed to send the Clippers out of Crypto.com Arena and to their new home in Inglewood next season in a blaze of postseason glory. Lue said Harden has been “too polite” in deferring to teammates, but the time for niceties is over. “What he brings to the team, we need,” Lue said.
Lue previously said the Clippers would place more importance on the regular-season schedule than in the past, but that has been complicated by his need to find consistent rotations and situations where George, Leonard, Westbrook and Harden can coexist together or at arm’s length.
It’s an uneasy balance and it’s clearly not happening now.
“We’re just not on the same page right now. It’s going to take a little time. It’s going to be a process,” Lue said before Sunday’s game.
“And we knew that when we acquired James. So just keep putting the work in. Keep practicing, keep showing film, keep getting better and I see some positive things, but we’ve got to do it for 48 minutes.”
Leonard, too, said it was unreasonable to think Harden would fit in perfectly right away.
“There’s no magic to it,” said Leonard, who scored 14 points and was minus-18 Sunday. “Just trying to figure each other out, playing with one another. Trying to figure it out and when we do, keep it rolling.”
The Clippers’ path won’t get any easier, with the defending NBA champion Nuggets up next on Tuesday at Denver. Lue suggested they need to play faster, that their problems stemmed from playing too slowly, but that’s only part of it. “I think we’ve just got to be consistent with it,” Leonard said. “We’ve just got to get better.”
The Clippers’ woes might go beyond Harden’s inability to be who he is, or who they hope he can be on that misty future triumphant day they’re always looking forward to but never actually experiencing.