Scouts, executives split on James Harden's impact on Clippers: 'They are feeling the pressure'

Philadelphia 76ers' James Harden in action during Game 2 in the first round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, Monday, April 17, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

NBA trades are graded on a sliding scale. Some are chess moves made with an eye on a team’s five-year plan. Judgment comes quicker for deals based on win-now expectations.

The Clippers’ trade for Philadelphia’s James Harden falls into the latter category. Success or failure will be known at the latest by June’s NBA Finals, a stage the Clippers have never played on in the franchise’s five decades, including in the four seasons since All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George partnered in Los Angeles.

Brokered over on-again, off-again discussions for the last four months, this deal was done to prop open the Clippers’ championship window by adding a fourth future Hall of Fame player and trusting coach Tyronn Lue’s ability to get all four to play together. Will it actually work? Four rival scouts and three executives from across the NBA offered divided thoughts when surveyed Tuesday by The Times about the trade. They provided their candid observations on the condition of anonymity.

What emerged were split opinions on the deal’s cost, motivations and the fit between Harden and new teammates Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook that ranged from optimism to dissent.

“Don’t want to call it a desperate move,” said one rival team executive of the Clippers. “But I think they are feeling the pressure.”

“This is something that can go two, three different ways, but a motivated Harden is a good Harden,” said one scout, referencing Harden’s acrimonious trade requests from Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia since 2020. “I think we'll get a hard-playing James. Now when the playoffs come, that's always interesting how he regresses. But I think we'll see some big-game James in the coming months.”

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In addition to Harden, the Clippers will receive 38-year-old forward P.J. Tucker and 6-foot-11 Serbian forward Filip Petrusev, though the Clippers are deciding whether to keep Petrusev.

Philadelphia receives the two first-round draft picks it wanted in any Harden deal — an unprotected first from the Clippers in 2028, and a protected 2026 pick via Oklahoma City that the Clippers were able to route to Philadelphia by agreeing to send the Thunder a pick swap. Philadelphia also will receive the Clippers' second-round picks in 2024 and 2029, a future pick swap, and four players: forwards Marcus Morris Sr., Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum and Kenyon Martin Jr.

Though that cost was called about right for a player of Harden’s stature, there was consensus it was a considerably large cost since it could just be a one-season experiment that leaves the Clippers almost out of future draft picks until 2030.

The Clippers’ new core four share history as former Southern California high school stars who broke into the league within three years of one another. But will they be able to make history together by winning the title that has eluded the franchise for five decades? As a second executive noted, Harden is essentially star insurance given Leonard's and George’s history of injuries.

“It’s going to work on the basketball court because Harden’s playing style can play with anybody,” a second scout said. “It’s more, can it work with all their egos and their health? Can they all be on the court at the same time? If they are, then it’s dynamic.”

With Harden a free agent after this season, and Leonard, George and Westbrook all holding player options for next season, multiple scouts and executives — but not all — expressed a belief all share the same motivation to play nice. Harden’s falling out with Philadelphia began when he sensed the 76ers weren’t going to offer him a long-term contract.

“I think it’s a mitigated risk,” a third scout said. “It fares well for both sides because James has to prove it, as he always does. He has one year to get it right. Or they can move on from him.”

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, and 76ers guard James Harden chase after a loose ball during a game last season.
James Harden, right, will be joining forces with forward Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers if an agreed upon trade is finalized. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Yet how that manifests on the court was the subject of both concerns and belief.

“The third-best defender on the floor is now going to have to guard either PG or Harden,” a fourth scout said. “Phoenix has a big three that they have to figure out. Clippers have the same. It’s about sacrifice.”

The biggest question is how Westbrook and Harden will split balhandling duties in a reunion of the start of their careers in Oklahoma City, and again in Houston during the 2019-20 season. It was why one executive said he was “not a fan, honestly” of the fit. When Harden was traded to Brooklyn and was paired with guard Kyrie Irving, Irving quickly acquiesced and called Harden the team’s point guard, but it’s not necessarily a predictor of how it will go in Los Angeles.

“The pecking order to me is what’s going to be interesting. I know teams don’t admit that they have one, but does Kawhi get the most shots?” said the first scout. “Now you got two ballhandlers who dictate that [in Westbrook and Harden]. It’s a lot.”

Both play better with the ball in their hands. Westbrook’s value is diminished as a catch-and-shoot player, while Harden led the league in assists last season. A third scout downplayed such worries because of the “basketball IQ” of the players and their trust that “these guys all want the same things.”

“Maybe Lue will stagger the minutes when you have two point guards,” the second scout said. “Where Russ is the first substitute, you allow those other three to play and Russ comes off the bench and plays with the second unit.”

Others said that though they believe Lue ultimately will start Harden, Leonard and George with Westbrook and center Ivica Zubac, they were watching to see if, or how long, it would work, saying that with defenders sagging off of Zubac and Westbrook, Leonard won’t have space to operate in the midrange and post as he likes, and driving lanes could be cut off. When Harden and Westbrook played in Houston, they were at their best together when the Rockets ditched their center and played small — in lineups that included Tucker, their new Clippers teammate, as the nominal center.

“The only reason to get James,” said one executive leery of Harden’s addition, “is to get the highest playoff seed as possible, and play five-out in the playoffs.”

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Several people shared the same opinion that the Clippers were lacking a true stretch big man capable of posing a three-point threat without giving up size for rebounds.

Given the status of their stars’ contracts, the Clippers have potentially few opportunities left to win their long-sought championship before the team must make high-stakes choices about the franchise’s roster construction and direction.

Another factor: The Clippers also have little time to generate excitement within their fan base before the team moves into its new Inglewood arena next season. Until this trade, the Clippers entered this season with a roster virtually unchanged from last season.

“I'm not saying it can't work. I think it can,” the third scout said. “They're clearly better with James Harden in terms of talent, skill and basketball IQ. But how's it all going to shake out?

“I don't see how — with the willingness of these guys seems to be there to make it work — that it wouldn't work. But sometimes the best-laid plans don't always go the way you think. I understand why the Clippers did it.”

Times staff writers Broderick Turner and Dan Woike contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.