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How the Los Angeles Clippers Saved Their Season

The James Harden era couldn’t have started any worse, but the Clippers now have the NBA’s best record since mid-November. So what changed? Their superstars refuse to let history repeat itself.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With just over a minute remaining in the Los Angeles Clippers’ tight win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, James Harden lobbed a rainbow-esque pass just inside the perimeter to Kawhi Leonard, who, despite being immediately blitzed by Scottie Barnes, remained unfazed.

Leonard has made strides to attack quickly in the post this season before the inevitable double-team—part of the reason he’s shooting a career-high 82 percent at the rim. But here, he slowed down and dribbled in space, retreating away from the double by Barnes and Dennis Schröder, before bursting by, with his generally spiritless affectation morphing into a scowl as he slammed a thunderous dunk through the hoop.

This is the Leonard who anchored the Raptors throughout their 2019 title run: steady, unmovable, inevitable—a relentless machine hell-bent on getting exactly what he wants where he wants it, regardless of his opponent’s best-laid plans or how long it takes to get there.

All the while, Clippers coach Ty Lue, with a calm rivaling his superstar’s, stood silently on the sideline, arms crossed in stoic approval.

This was the promise of the Harden trade: His playmaking genius can project itself onto a talented but disorganized offense, allowing him to strategize—to run the clock and let the game dwindle down, in this case—without overburdening him with the pressure to create, on a night when he was just 5-of-13 from the field.

Since November 17, when Terance Mann replaced Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup, the Clippers are 21-6—the NBA’s best record over that span—with the NBA’s second-best net rating in crunch time.

Leonard, who before Wednesday’s game agreed to a $153 million extension that will lock him in through the 2026-27 season, is resisting any reflection on the Clippers’ recent success or his place in franchise lore. “I’m in the moment this season,” he said after beating the Raptors, “and I’m trying to get us to a place we haven’t been before.”

He was more fixated on the fact that despite the win, the Clippers were sloppy on both ends. “We were in the mud a little bit, moving a little slow and no communication,” he said. “We have a lot to improve on.”

Among the four of them, Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, and Paul George have 27 All-NBA nods. But as evidenced by their 0-5 start in the Harden era, raw talent alone is nothing without offensive execution, effort, sacrifice, and rotational chemistry.

Lue voiced that sentiment. “Half of it is great talent, and I think half of it is execution,” he said. “We gotta be 100 percent execution, with our talent. That makes for a dangerous team. When you have great players that can score on anybody, sometimes it’s too easy. Why would I run and cut over there when I could just catch and shoot it? When you get to the playoffs, it’s a whole different animal, so we gotta start building those habits.”

These, of course, are champagne problems for a team that looked like it was on the verge of collapse two months ago. The starting lineup, overcrowded with four future Hall of Famers in Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, and George, was an absolute mess. In their first five games together, they produced a net rating three points worse than that of the 3-35 Detroit Pistons.

The misfortunes of Harden, who had become a symbol of player empowerment run amok, became a source of strongly worded monologues and mass schadenfreude. How would Westbrook, who couldn’t play alongside Harden and couldn’t manage to find his place alongside LeBron James just a year ago, react to the inevitable reduction of his role? How long until Harden started plotting his next destination, leaving a wake of destruction behind him? How long until George and Leonard, with player options for next season, decided they were out, too?

It would be a fitting, unceremonious end to yet another Clippers era that, despite the franchise’s escalating competence and grand ambitions, couldn’t manage to shake its cursed past and hoist its first title. Wasn’t this what everyone expected? For these star-crossed paths to converge and collapse under the weight of their own vexed history, mere months before the team moved to a brand-new $2 billion arena in Inglewood?

“Obviously, it didn’t start off well,” Harden said last week. “It gave people so much to talk about in a negative way. And now those people that was talking, they’re nowhere to be found. Like, literally nowhere to be found.”

Failure, of course, remains a possibility. But two months ago, disaster seemed preordained, as though the Clippers had signed up for a collision they couldn’t stop. That is, unless you were in the locker room.

You wouldn’t have thought the Clippers were doomed from the way Lue casually ambled into the postgame press conference at Denver’s Ball Arena back in November, preaching positivity after L.A.’s sixth consecutive loss.

Lue has led the Clippers back from multiple 0-2 deficits in the postseason and famously engineered the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback against the 73-win Warriors. Despite another loss, he had a coolheaded demeanor. In fact, he was encouraged—particularly by the play of the team’s heavily scrutinized new addition, who had crossed the 20-point threshold for the first time in a Clippers uniform. While the outside world had anticipated a drama-fueled, ego-driven implosion upon Harden’s arrival, the Clippers were being plagued by the opposite impulse: The stars were being too deferential to one another.

Like a couple wasting the night scrolling through Netflix in search of the perfect movie, the Clippers’ new Big Four were timidly batting the ball back and forth to each other while the shot clock dwindled.

“I think not wanting to step on each other’s toes. I think having respect, all four guys having a huge respect for each other,” said Lue. “Sometimes that can be a negative because now they don’t want to do what they’re capable of doing.”

George, averaging 28.8 points on over 50 percent shooting from 3 before the Harden trade, shifted his mindset with the departures of glue guys Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington, taking it on himself to fill the dirty-work void—playing a complementary role, taking charges, and crashing the glass.

If George’s decision-making was paralyzed by a surplus of choices, it was also zapped by scarcity. Driving lanes dried up when the two non-shooters Westbrook and Ivica Zubac shared the court—one of them needed the ball in his hands to thrive. Harden, meanwhile, took fewer than 10 shot attempts in each of his first three games.

Leonard, who began his career working around three Hall of Famers in San Antonio, saw the trouble coming. On the night of the trade, while pundits stressed sacrifice, he emphasized the importance of staying greedy. “I think we still have to come in, kind of, with a selfish mindset, meaning we can’t look over our shoulder saying, ‘This guy is gonna win the game for us,’” he said after the trade. “We still have to step on that floor like we’re out there by ourselves, and from there it’s gonna be sacrifice.”

The offense may have looked listless and uninspired, but it was at least well intentioned—a sign of the Clippers stars’ commitment to making things work. All the way through, Lue emphasized the importance of staying the course, speaking privately to players about their roles, reminding them of the importance of staying accountable to the system.

There was no pushback, no finger-pointing, no unsavory public jabs.

The revelation, in hindsight, was the rebellion that never came, the egos that didn’t implode but leaned on the wisdom of their collective years to stay level and stay the course.

One more act of self-sacrifice would get them back on the right track. The night after the loss in Denver, Westbrook texted Lue and told him he was willing to come off the bench.

With Mann inserted into the starting lineup, the Clippers won their first game of the Harden era against Houston and continued to drill down on the little things. After practices and shootarounds, Harden has held 15-minute pick-and-roll cram sessions with Zubac and Daniel Theis.

After a loss against the New Orleans Pelicans right after Thanksgiving in which Harden scored just eight points, Lue reminded him to be aggressive and take command as a point guard: simplify the offense, make sure everyone is in their spots early, and get the ball up the floor quickly. If the Clippers were going to jam multiple creators on the floor together, they could at least use the full measure of the 24-second shot clock to maximize ball movement and ensure everyone could get a touch.

“I think that helped me a lot,” said Harden, “to not overthink, communicating with guys after free throws and getting guys in their right spots.”

If Leonard and Lue are the Clippers’ twin pillars of composure, Harden and Lue are becoming their telepathically connected nucleus.

In Harden’s introductory Clippers press conference, he raised eyebrows and prompted eyerolls when he said he felt like he’d been on a leash in Philadelphia and referred to himself as “a system” by himself. His statement, at the time, was taken as an omen: He was about to team up with three decorated perimeter-oriented creators and had yet to acknowledge the flaws in his ball-dominant ways. But he clarified, then and later, that what he really wanted was for his basketball mind to be fully used, for his ideas to be heard.

Lue not only wanted to hear from Harden but needed to. Incorporating all the variability that Harden (a pick-and-roll impresario), Leonard (a destroyer inside the arc), and George (one of the game’s best movement shooters) have to offer was already going to be a schematic challenge. That Harden has found a way to make all that variability not only cohere but sing is the greatest feather in his playmaking cap, a demonstration of his ability to get the best out of role players and superstars alike. The results: The new starting lineup is generating 125.8 points per 100 possessions, which is more than three points better than the Pacers’ league-leading offense. Swap Mann in for Norman Powell, and the Clippers improve on both sides of the ball. That figure jumps by two points, and they field the second-best net rating in the NBA of lineups that have played more than 75 minutes (second, ironically, only to the Sixers).

“It’s been great,” said Lue. “He’s someone that actually sees the game how I see it, from a point guard’s point of view—if you want to say, a coach’s point of view. Certain things where we see how teams are playing us defensively, how we can capitalize and take advantage of it.”

In Houston, Harden was a heliocentric god, but his ball dominance flattened the dynamism of his teammates. The greater the burden he carried, the greater the burden he had to carry. Even when he partnered with Chris Paul, the duo could swap in for each other without meaningfully altering the scheme or play calls. The Clippers offense has characteristics of past Harden outfits—they’re last in passes, first in isolation frequency, and bottom five in average speed—but it avoids the bouts of overburdened predictability that have caused his teams to crater in the past. The Clippers stars are distinct, and they’ve found a way to highlight all of their differences.

They’re not exactly whipping the ball all over the floor, à la Denver or Golden State. Leonard and Harden are, after all, merchants of methodical, patient maneuvering. They’re more like an orchestra, with Harden connecting all the disparate instruments, finding the right times and spaces to hit defenses where it hurts the most.

In Lue, he has found the perfect partner, a coach who has the rare ability to strike the balance between empowering his stars and stopping short of letting them run amok and shirk accountability.

“There’s a line of when we’re friends and hanging out, and he’s been around the league and a player in this league, so he knows the balance of it because he’s been in the locker room, he knows how the season goes,” said Powell. “That gets respect when you’re in this league, especially dealing with multiple personalities—superstar personalities.”

Harden is playing the best regular-season defense of his career, and he’s spacing the floor for his teammates too, finally embracing the catch-and-shoot 3s he struggled to get off in Philadelphia, shooting 2.1 of them per game and hitting them at a 43 percent clip.

“Communication is unbelievable,” said Harden. “[Lue] allows me to just be free, be who I am. And like I said previously, that’s not just scoring, with me reading defenses, seeing the different games, and putting Kawhi and PG in better positions, in the pick-and-roll with Zu or DT getting easy layups. It’s everything I thought it would be.”

Lue, for his part, has said that there have been times when he’s geared up to tell Harden something, only to realize the guard was already thinking it. A common Lue maneuver when the Clippers are up late in games is to go away from blitzing and doubling stars to stop teams from using 3-pointers to get back in the game. In their second matchup against New Orleans in early January, Harden used a similar tactic when the Clippers were up by double digits, slowing the game down to a crawl and using the majority of the shot clock. In the past, Harden might have dribbled the clock out and fatigued himself, a strategy the Warriors turned against him in the 2018 Western Conference finals. But here, he mostly tapped Leonard, continuously feeding him against mismatches.

The roster is starting to develop a sense of collective intuition. In the play below, immediately after New Orleans went small, George screened for Harden, putting Larry Nance Jr.—the Pelicans’ only deterrent at the rim—into the action. The Pelicans switched, giving Harden an open runway to the rim once he beat Nance off the dribble. Harden is taking a career-low 21 percent of his shots at the rim this season, but his ability to be selective has allowed him to convert at a career-high 70 percent rate.

On the next play, it’s George exploiting the Jose Alvarado mismatch.

Peep the details here: the way George rebounds after contesting a floater to deter an approaching Zion Williamson, who was feasting on the boards during this stretch; the way he immediately shoots the ball up to Harden; the way George’s teammates recognize the mismatch before he’s up the floor, migrating to the weak side and giving him space to work.

While the stars have made concessions by way of touches, shots, and control, they’ve relinquished the redundancies in their game to emphasize their strengths, a form of sacrifice that has allowed them to tap into their individual essence. We knew they’d have to leave a chunk of their pasts at the door, but their experience still brings a lot to the game.

The past, so far, has been a teacher—offering lessons about the fragility of contention and failed blueprints—and a source of cohesion, a motivating factor for a group that collectively wants to prove something.

“No one else outside [Leonard, Powell, and P.J. Tucker] have won a championship,” George said after the win against Toronto. “For us, we understand what’s at stake. Sacrifice just comes too. We just want to win; we don’t care what it looks like, how it looks. We don’t care about who gets shots, whose offensive nights it is. Finish the game with a win, and everybody’s happy about that. When you put it all into perspective, our accomplishments, we’ve quote, unquote made our money in this league. None of that matters at the end of the day. It’s just how can we come together on a nightly basis to get a win?”

Rep by cooperative rep, the Clippers are chipping away at the doubt, attempting to rewrite their history, in pursuit of going somewhere they’ve never gone before.