“I’m not a system player … I am a system.”
Those were James Harden’s emphatic words about himself in his opening presser as a Los Angeles Clipper five days ago.
Unfortunately, he mispronounced his words … should have been, “I am a Sixth Man.”
It’s still unclear who wanted this trade more – the Clippers or Harden himself.
If it’s the Clippers, be careful what you wish for.
In his first outing as a Clipper, smooth sailing it wasn’t for Harden. He was “meh” average, scoring 9 points in the first half and eight in the second for a total of 17 points – just under Kawhi Leonard’s 18, tying Russell Westbrook, and just a shade above Norman Powell, who came off the bench with 14.
He wasn’t bad – he was just “meh.” Not sure what was uglier – his second half or the Harden 8’s he wore.
You expect more from someone who’s been a Most Valuable Player, and whined that he should have been the year prior. Who whined that he should have received more playing time from then-head coach Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. He walked away from OKC’s four-year, $52 million offer and was traded to the Houston Rockets, later signing a renegotiation and extension in 2016 and an extension in 2017.
Presti decided enough was enough with Harden and The Beard would get his chance to come into his own after the Thunder fell to the Miami Heat in their (and Harden’s) only appearance in the NBA Finals. Many in Oklahoma City lamented Presti’s decision then … but I wonder what they think of it today?
Harden had a solid nine years in H-Town, but whined his way out of Houston and then out of Brooklyn, using ties to Philadelphia President of Basketball Operations (and former Houston GM) Daryl Morey before screwing Morey publicly to get out of Philadelphia.
(Probably whines for a discount at the Golden Corral, too, where he shows up more often than decisive playoff games).
The days of 61 points (twice in 2019) or 21 assists (against these very Clippers in 2022) or 17 rebounds (2016 and 2020) are as gone as Harden typically is when a playoff series begins. It’s hard to imagine a starting line-up of Harden, Leonard, Westbrook, Paul George and Ivica Zubac working until well after the first of next year.
We all know that Westbrook is the only Ironman of the group as it seems Leonard and George already took the game against the New York Knicks off Monday night, utilizing in-game load management to stay off Adam Silver’s radar. A lineup with that kind of firepower on paper should have run over the Knicks, right?
Not even in NBA 2K24 … Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett were both much more impressive in the video game and in real life, or IRL as these nutty kids would say.
The problem is, Harden is like Forrest Gump’s mythical box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.
Granted, through nine seasons in Houston, Harden played his best years of basketball, but wasn’t the caped crusading solo act he thought he was, getting the Rockets to the playoffs every year he was there, but losing every year … including the Western Conference Finals twice (2015 and 2018), costing Kevin McHale, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Mike D’Antoni their jobs.
Only Bickerstaff has bounced back successfully.
In 2017-18, he won the Most Valuable Player award, after losing it to his former and current teammate Westbrook the year prior. Harden scored 30.4 points per game in his MVP season, only to increase to 36.1 ppg in 2018-19 (his best season to date) and 34.3 in the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. He was first in the league in those latter two seasons, hitting 843 in 2018-19. He finished second and third, respectively, in MVP voting in those latter two seasons as well.
But in his move to Brooklyn, Harden never meshed – statistically or from a teamwork standpoint – with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. For the Nets, Harden’s numbers plummeted to 23.4 points per game, though his assists went to double digit averages. Transitioning from being the focal point and star player to being in the mix of semi-equal talent like he was when he began in Oklahoma City, was blocked more by ego and pride than redistribution of his talent and playmaking abilities.
He sought Morey, now in Philadelphia, and made his way to the City of Brotherly Love, alongside the likes of Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris. His scoring again took a nose dive and Harden’s new persona of being a playoff ghost rose as he faded in the 76ers’ first series, one they lost.
Then he wants out of Philly, and got his wish last week. It’s hard to fathom that his bloated ego or waistline will mesh any more in L.A. than it did in OKC, Brooklyn, or Philadelphia.
Hence, why he’s more a Sixth Man than a system.
Hopefully he can find himself, as the teammate and now seek the stardom he had for nine years – his prime. He’s past it, he just needs to realize it.
With his teammates’ propensities for load management and injuries, he’ll have his chances to be the man. It just won’t be every game. Ever again.
Harden will get another chance to demonstrate who he is as a Los Angeles Clipper when he returns to Brooklyn on Wednesday night, where I’m sure he’ll be welcomed with open arms.
Tracy Graven is the Senior NBA Analyst for BackSportsPage.com.
He has written the NBA, done NBA Radio, and appeared as a guest for the last 24 years for HoopsWorld, Swish Magazine, HoopsHype, the Coach Scott Fields Show, NBARadioShow.com, and is also tackling the NFL, NCAA, and will be pinch-hitting on some Major League Baseball coverage for BackSportsPage.
He’s spent 21 years in locker rooms in Orlando, Boise (CBA, G League), San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.
A corporate trainer by day, he currently resides in SEC Country near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reach him on Twitter at @RealTMoneyMedia
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