Chemistry is an inexact science. It’s about as immeasurable through analytics as other nebulous traits like heart and grit. Contending teams are usually an intermingling melange of personalities, players with strengths, and weaknesses coalescing into a cohesive unit.
Watch the joy exuded by Denver, Golden State, Memphis, the Lakers, or the Kings. All of the Clippers’ passion got funneled into Steve Ballmer. The Clippers are a buttoned-up NBA industry plant. Few teams have drafted as poorly in the last decade as the Clips. Even in the context of the player empowerment era, Los Angeles has sacrificed culture, and organic team building to an egregious extent. Their only draft hit aside from a 24-year-old Terance Mann in the post-Sterling era was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whom they surrendered for Paul George.
As a team on paper, they make sense as an algorithm for what an executive firm would think a title team should look like, based on decade-old analytics. As a business arrangement, the Clippers make sense when you remember that they’re accelerating toward moving out of the Lakers’ basement and opening their own $2 billion bachelor pad mega-arena in 2024. Norm Powell, Powell, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook are all exciting, perimeter scorers, but they’re lacking offensive variance. Too many of their backcourt players do the same things well. They’re a good team but not elite and they lack variance and imagination in their offensive attack.
George and Kawhi Leonard make sense on paper as two stretchy, two-way wings, who can stretch the floor, and create their own offense. Leonard has become a more capable creator, which has made him an even more intimidating offensive force. George has accepted his No. 2 role and remains one of the league’s most complete players. However, few teams have had a greater discrepancy between what should work, and what has worked than the Los Angeles Clippers.
Lawrence Frank ordered this roster from Amazon and constructed them on the fly, but I’m still not sure half of this team has ever met the other half. For the last few seasons. their stars have been an open hand instead of a fist, working separate shifts on the same job site. Last season, they staggered lineups so often that George and Leonard barely had court time together, leading to the league instituting rules for resting healthy players. The Clippers stars worked remotely last season and appeared in only 38 contests together.
The details of James Harden’s interest in the Clippers have circulated since the summer, but the Clippers side has never made as much sense. If Harden does get traded to Clipperland, he’ll reunite with Russell Westbrook for a third time. The last time a team experimented with this pair, they grew frustrated with one another. Westbrook wanted the ball in his hands and Harden thought that his heliocentric play style was being cramped by Westbrook’s brand of basketball.
Westbrook’s long past his athletic prime and his play has diminished since he was traded by Houston to Washington three years ago. More importantly, his stubborn reluctance to adapt has made him one of the NBA’s most frustrating talents. He tempered his penchant for 20-point nights on 30 shots over a 21-game sample in a Clippers uniform, but there’s no telling which Jekyll or Hyde Westbrook you’ll get each night once he resets.
Meanwhile, Harden, 34, is interested in reasserting himself as a top 15 player after operating as table-setter to the reigning MVP in Philadelphia. What purpose would Westbrook even have on the floor when Harden is beating the pressure out of the ball? He’s a capable off-ball scorer and sets screens but that’s an unfamiliar role for him to embrace after years of generating his own offense. Westbrook’s recklessness was more tolerable when he was 30 and had the tools to make up for his blunders, than he is on the verge of his 35th revolution around the sun.
Meshing an aging attacking point guard in Westbrook with the aloof brilliance of Leonard and George and potentially throwing Harden’s desire to be the protagonist into the Clippers jambalaya sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Regardless of how they bond off the court, if at all, does anyone think the synergy between George, and Leonard is a championship dynamic within the confines of basketball? In an era of egalitarian offenses, the Clippers were in the bottom fourth of teams in assists and passes per game.
Harden could rejuvenate a tired offense, but more importantly, they’re desperate enough to pay him what he demands to come in, put on his Harden Globetrotter hat, pump some adrenaline into this team, and put on a show. Harden’s nifty handles and Globetrotter dishes may be just what the Clippers ordered, but he’ll come at a detriment to what remains of their chemistry. However, after decades of misery, the Clippers are just happy to be in the mix as one of the league’s primetime teams and Harden accomplishes that. Just don’t count on them coming within arm’s reach of an NBA title.
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