In James Harden’s last full season with the Houston Rockets, they tried something radical, swapping their rim-protecting center (Clint Capela) for a 3-and-D forward (Robert Covington) and betting that the benefits — spacing for Russell Westbrook and Harden, speed, switchability — would outweigh the big, glaring drawback: No one in the rotation was taller than 6-foot-8.
In retrospect, the experiment was more interesting than it was revolutionary. The post-trade Rockets were formidable in the regular season — they outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with both Covington and P.J. Tucker on the court, per Cleaning The Glass — but, in the second round of the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers pushed them around, ignored Westbrook on the perimeter and disposed of them in five games. Teams have continued to use unconventional lineups since then, but going centerless is generally a change of pace, not a starting point, and the league has trended bigger, not smaller.
What if that Houston team, which went out in the bubble starting Harden and Westbrook next to Eric Gordon, Covington and Tucker, could have swapped two of its supporting characters for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? And what if, instead of punting on traditional bigs, it was able to add all of this skill while maintaining its size?
This is the promise of the Los Angeles Clippers. By acquiring Harden and Tucker from the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, they can throw out a Harden-Westbrook-George-Leonard-Tucker lineup, switch just about everything, and, in theory at least, pile up points playing 5-out. Harden is now 34, Westbrook almost 35 and Tucker 38, but, with two star wings flanking them, the ex-Rockets won’t have to do as much as they did four seasons ago. And with Ivica Zubac sure to remain the Clippers’ starting center, plus Mason Plumlee backing him up, coach Tyronn Lue can use small ball the way recent champions have: as a counterpunch.
If Lue wants to balance the rotation, he might not even start Westbrook. I like the idea of Harden, George, Leonard and Zubac starting next to Terance Mann, Tucker or even Norman Powell, whose shooting and slashing would make him a deadly (and extremely overqualified) No. 4 option. The Clippers aren’t quite as stacked with role players as they appeared to be entering last season, but their top nine is up there with anybody’s, which is more important.
For the Clippers, who are completely committed to chasing the championship this season and face massive question marks after that, this was likely the best trade they could have made. They have never been a particularly good passing team in the Leonard-George era, so they acquired the guy who led the league in assists last season and finished second the season before that. In 2022-23, for all their supposed depth, they only outscored opponents by 1.3 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the court without George and were outscored (-1.4) when George was on the court without Leonard, per Cleaning The Glass. Harden should ease the playmaking burden on both of them and, ideally, get them more open looks.
For Harden, who at times when playing with Joel Embiid found it challenging not to be able to run the show the way he was used to and said he had to change his game because the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t have a lob threat, partnering with Zubac should be a blast. Like Westbrook last season, he’ll benefit from the Clippers’ collective shooting, switchability and all the attention that opposing defenses have to pay to Leonard and George. It will be even cleaner if Harden is willing to take spot-up 3s semi-frequently and can get comfortable running dribble handoffs with Plumlee, but, generally speaking, this is an environment where he can be himself.
After a third fulfilled trade request in less than three years, Harden has found himself on a roster that blends the custom fit that he had in Houston with the sheer talent that he had next to him in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. No one knows what might happen if this group doesn’t jell, as Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook could all be free agents in July, but it appears that the bearded future Hall of Famer has everything he could have asked for.
Well, almost everything: It’s a shame that Los Angeles couldn’t get Danuel House Jr. in the deal and keep Covington out of it.