When you sign up for the James Harden Experience, you're making the conscious decision as a franchise to play with fire. When things are good and he's happy and the team is playing stress-free regular season games? His impact is undeniable. With all the bullshit that comes with having Harden on your team, you sometimes forget that just last season he was a very effective regular season player.
The issue of course is things will not say good, he eventually won't be happy, and we'll reach a point of the year where the games are not stress-free regular season matchups, but instead high pressured playoff games.
Eith every stop, you see the same cycle. Prior to the trade, Harden does everything he can to tank his play and his attitude until he gets what he wants. He did it in Houston, he did it in Brooklyn, and he did it in Philly. Then someone trades for him, that fanbase convinces themselves that things will finally be different because he's now on their favorite team, and you immediately begin the honeymoon phase. It happened in Houston, it happened in Brooklyn, it happened in Philly, and we are currently living in that phase now with the Clippers.
Does this look and sound like the same player we saw at the end of his Sixers tenure? Of course not. Because that's not how this works. You'll remember when Harden first arrived in Philly he immediately looked like a completely different player than we saw as a Net. In his first 44 games as a Net in 2021-22, Harden shot just 41/33% with a brutal 4.8 TOs a game. He was checked out. The second he became a Sixer? He was right back to being Houston Harden.
So the question now becomes, are the Clippers and their fans experiencing the standard Harden honeymoon phase that will ultimately end in disaster? Or, now that he's once again where he wants to be on a team with legit talent, should you buy into the version we're currently seeing? Since that change to make him the starting point guard, not only are the Clippers 11-3, but Harden's efficiency has skyrocketed to 46/43% and his turnovers are down to just 2.4 a game. Safe to say, this is not the version we saw to begin his Clippers tenure or the one we saw in the playoffs.
This is why the Clippers are so hard to read as a team. They're finally getting healthy seasons from Kawhi and George, but even with this 6 game winning streak they're still out of the top 6. At the same time, their +4.6 point differential is higher than all but 2 teams in the West's top 6 (MIN/OKC). Since the role change on the 11/17, the Clippers own the 12th best offense, 4th best defense, and 5th best net rating of any team in the league. Suddenly, they are building a profile of what you would consider a title contender.
But that brings us right back to the Harden issue. We already know things look great during the honeymoon phase of the James Harden Experience. For the Clippers to finally get to a Finals, they need this version of Harden in the Spring, when things get tighter and teams are trying all the time for a full 48 minutes. It can be tough to resist the hype and the belief as a Clippers fan right now because you're seeing the vision of what things could look like down the road, but that's where you have to be strong.
History tells us we probably have an idea of how this ends, but there's no denying that right now, in mid December, the James Harden trade has sneakily worked out for both sides. The Sixers have empowered not just Tyrese Maxey who is taking a leap, but it also has unlocked Embiid as a central hub for everything they do offensively, and as a result, he's off to the best start of his career as well. The Clippers essentially saved their season by giving Harden the keys as their starting guard and offensive initiator.
Maybe this is all just setting up for a disastrous crash and burn in a few months, but so far? Not too shabby.