James Harden is one of the few NBA players in the game now with a long, illustrious track record of impacting the game far beyond a mere box score.
He is an iconic talent whose step-back, side-step jumper is part of a scoring acumen that will one day be remembered as one of the greatest of his generation. With that kind of cache, it makes a lot of sense why he has a certain amount of impact and influence on playing in a city and for a team of his preference.
But at this moment, Harden’s brand of player empowerment has been horrifically bad on just about every metric imaginable.
So after one failed power move and flex by Harden after another, he now finds himself back where it all started, his hometown of Los Angeles playing for the Clippers.
The early returns?
Harden’s start had the makings of a dumpster fire in progress, but signs of progress are on the horizon after the Clippers racked up back-to-back wins over two of the NBA’s not-so-great teams this season, Houston and San Antonio, respectively.
Has Harden finally found his basketball nirvana playing alongside Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook?
It’s still early to get a real sense of how good this team can be in real games, but on paper, it’s hard to knock the potential this core group has when you compare them to the rest of the league.
For those keeping score at home, the only one among the quartet to not win a league MVP or NBA Finals MVP, is George who has been a top-five finisher previously.
You won’t find another team in the league now with that kind of historical impact, which in itself is a reminder of why this isn’t working.
All that makes these players great, is in the past.
MVP Westbrook ain’t walkin’ through that door.
Ditto for Leonard and Harden.
While we may be reminded of their basketball prowess from time to time, none of them have the kind of high-impact sustainable game that made them such elite players.
But the Clippers being the latest to fall for the Harden okey-doke, is surprising.
At least they were smart enough to not include Terrance Mann in the deal, a player that the Sixers desperately wanted to be part of the package.
With the kind of talent assembled in Clippers Land now, you would think they would have some kind of cool and catchy nickname, like the “Fantastic Four” or the “Four Scoresmen.” But at this point, the bar for their success - winning a game – has proven much more difficult than expected.
The first five games Harden played with the Clippers, each ended with a loss. After the first four games, the Clippers were minus-67 with him on the floor.
Following the Clippers’ 111-108 loss to Denver on Nov. 14, Harden was just minus-3 when on the floor, which is the best plus/minus game he has had since joining the Clippers.
Yup, being outscored by a 3-ball is the best impact Harden has had on the Clippers when he has played until the Clippers finally broke through with a 106-100 win over one of his former teams, the Houston Rockets.
In the Houston victory and subsequent win over San Antonio, Harden was a plus-21 and plus-17 when on the floor, respectively.
But his start with the Clippers has been a rough one, one that even the most die-hard, Harden loyalists can’t dispute with the commentary coming from all sides of the media.
At the root of all this, was the Clippers allowing themselves to be the latest team to acquiesce to Harden’s desire to dip to another team when things went south.
The Hall of Fame track record is hard to look past.
Harden is an eight-time All-Star who has been named to an all-NBA team on five different occasions. Like the aforementioned ballers, he too will be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame when the he calls it a day.
No one will ever question his talent, nor should they second-guess his decision-making on the court because more times than not, Harden does make the right play.
But at this point in his basketball journey which is coming to an end sooner than later, Harden has become the ultimate franchise disrupter … and not in a good way.
One of the greatest challenges for aging superstars is to modify their game to meet the moment.
Harden hasn’t done that yet.
That’s why Harden’s latest foray into forcing himself onto another team could end no different than the previous ones – long on potential, short on results that matter.
A. Sherrod Blakely is in his Michael Jordan year (No. 23) of covering the NBA, and is also a full-time lecturer at Boston University.
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