With four games under his belt as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, James Harden has looked slow, and unprepared for the start of the season.
The 34-year-old is averaging 13.5 points, five rounds, and a pedestrian 4.3 assists on the year, all in Clippers losses.
As such, the internet is ripe with criticism for the former All-Star, who asked out of yet another situation in Philadelphia, after doing the same in both Houston and Brooklyn.
That criticism is, overall, fair game considering how Harden picked up his $35.6 million player option before the season, only to immediately ask out of Philadelphia. Instead, the veteran could have avoided months of media drama by simply declining the option, and signing with Los Angeles for what they had to offer.
However, criticizing Harden for the way he handled his contract situation is one thing. As far as the game goes, it seems premature to pencil Harden in for this current type of production.
While his game is certainly regressing – and somewhat rapidly – it would be outright shocking if Harden didn’t return to at least a presentable standard of play. After all, he led the league in assists just last year, at 10.7 per game, while scoring 21 points per game. Even if a drop-off appears overwhelmingly likely, it seems almost impossible to expect this to become his new baseline.
Let’s take the fact that Harden hasn’t even attempted a single shot from inside three feet this season. For a player so skilled at getting to the basket, that seems like a statistical anomaly that’s interesting solely in the moment, and will be long forgotten in just a few weeks.
Additionally, he’s playing with two of the league’s primary wings, in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, while juggling ball-handling responsibilities with former teammate Russell Westbrook. However you slice it, that’s going to take some time to adjust to.
So why bring this up?
For one, it’s important to understand the layers of Harden, particularly as he moves into the twilight of his career. He’s always been a complex character, either by being a heliocentric player who the Rockets tailored their entire offense around, or by changing his mind so frequently, he’s become a punchline in the international media.
He also, clearly, has private interests off the court, which has taken up a lot of coverage, and become almost an extension of his person. Most players like to party, but for Harden it’s become almost an appendix that he carries around with him, despite his usual prowess on a basketball court.
And therein lies the rub.
Harden is clearly slowing down, has trouble keeping himself in constant shape, and usually needs weeks to streamline his body before he gets comfortable.
In other words, Harden likes to take his time to get ready for the season, and the Clippers simply do not have the luxury of time.
All of Westbrook, Leonard and George can be unrestricted free agents after this season, as with Harden himself. They’re also 35, 32 and 33, respectively, and have all suffered from quite a few injuries over the past half-decade.
(And in the case of Westbrook, his game has also regressed fairly aggressively over the last few years.)
While Clippers chairman Steve Ballmer has deep pockets, he doesn’t have the ability to turn back the clock, however much he might wish to. This quartet of players are all feeling the pressure of time, aging bodies, and contractual complications, none of which are positive assets for the Clippers.
Harden will more than likely bounce back to a reasonable level, where he isn’t costing his team wins, but for how long can this team afford to wait?
If Leonard and George, in particular, need to extends themselves physically even more in the coming weeks, to offset the diminished play of Harden, that would only put them at higher risk of picking up injuries, and complicating what the franchise hope will be a championship run.
And that’s where this falls on Harden. While he didn’t join the Clippers until recently, he knew he was finished in Philadelphia, and could have spent time getting physically ready for a future trade, if nothing else. And if he did indeed attempt to get into game shape beforehand, then it’s fair to question just how much longer he’s got as a professional athlete, given his current state.
The Clippers need to figure it out, and quickly.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.