The Clippers see James Harden as the final piece to their championship puzzle

The Clippers see James Harden as the final piece to their championship puzzle

Paul George distinctly remembers when he first met James Harden

They were at a Skills Academy that featured the top young talent in Los Angeles. George, who described himself as a scrawny 15 or 16-year-old sophomore from Knight High in Palmdale, was awestruck by the junior from Artesia High.

“One play stood out,” George said Wednesday after the LA Clippers fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime, 130-125. “It was a fast break. They throw the ball ahead. The ball bounces. James catches the ball, goes between the legs and dunks it.

“I’m like, ‘All right, I’m definitely in the wrong place here.’ I’ve just never seen something like that. He was so explosive and bouncy. At that point forward, I paid attention to who James Harden was.”

Now, more than a decade and a half later, they became teammates this week after a trade sent Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers to his dream destination of the Clippers. 

“The reason why he’s here is we wanted him here,” said George, who had 35 points in 37 minutes Wednesday night. 

[Related: James Harden and the Clippers got what they wanted, but what about the Sixers?]

Harden is joining a team with three future Hall of Famers in George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook in an effort to help the Clippers reverse 52 years of falling short of winning an NBA title, or even reaching the championship round. 

And funny enough, they all went to high school within 100 miles of one another.

“What better story to be told than four Southern California guys doing the never been done before and being champions,” George said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. But we’re all very hopeful that we can figure this out.”

Harden is almost as divisive as he is talented. 

He’s an offensive savant, a 10-time All-Star and the 2018 MVP in 2018. But he also has played for four teams over the last four years, forcing trades when he’s been discontent and, most recently, trash-talking one of his longtime supporters in 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, calling him a “liar” in August during a promotional appearance in China.

[Emotion vs. Analytics: Why James Harden and Daryl Morey were always destined to implode]

But the Clippers see him as someone who could finally get them over the hump. 

Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said the analytics department tracked that Harden got his teammates 350 open shots last season. Harden also led the league in assists last season with 10.7 a game, in addition to averaging 21 points and 6.1 rebounds. 

“We need his passing ability,” Lue said.

It’s no secret that the Clippers also need him as an insurance policy. Leonard and Paul have struggled with injuries the past few seasons, which most notably derailed their 2021 Western Conference Finals run, the farthest they’ve ever gone in the playoffs. 

With Harden, they now have another superstar on the court, a hardy one who has played at least 65 games in 11 of his 14 seasons in the league. 

Leonard said he was in bed when news of the Harden trade broke Monday evening. 

“I guess excited,” Leonard, who led the Clippers with 38 points Wednesday, said of his reaction. “I know he’s one of the best players that has stepped on an NBA floor.”

Clippers acquire James Harden in blockbuster trade with 76ers | Undisputed

Despite Harden’s lofty résumé, the 34-year-old has never won a championship. The closest he’s come so far was in the 2012 Finals, when the Oklahoma City Thunder — led by the young trio of Harden, Westbrook  and Kevin Durant — lost to the Miami Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Combining four stars who like the ball in their hands is always a risk. But the Clippers believe they’re all willing to sacrifice, pointing out that Harden is well-versed in that after playing alongside Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. 

“He wants to win a championship for the LA Clippers,” said general manager Lawrence Frank. “He wants to be part of something bigger than himself. He has all the individual awards. He’s about doing something really special.”

Now begins the integration process.

[Related: NBA Front Office Confidential: Did the Sixers actually win the James Harden trade?]

Harden’s introductory press conference is Thursday. It’s unclear when he’ll play his first game with the Clippers. But it helps that they have four days before their next contest at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks on Monday. 

The Clippers hope Harden’s acclimation with the team will be expedited by the fact that he has played with Westbrook before in both Oklahoma City and Houston. 

“I talk to James year-round,” said Westbrook, who had 24 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists against his former team. “So, we talk, communicate as friends … throughout the season, on the same team, not on the same team. We’ve always stayed in communication.” 

Harden was on the Clippers’ bench Wednesday, watching as his new team blew a 19-point lead to the Lakers, who snapped an 11-game losing streak against their arena neighbors.  

After the game, Lue was asked if he saw ways he would’ve used Harden.  

“Yeah, I saw it for 53 minutes,” Lue quipped. 

But long before then, it was George who saw something in an unknown guy from a neighboring school that sparked an awe which never faded. 

If anything, it only increased. 

“It’s not everyday you get a chance to get a guy of his ability that wants to come and play on this team,” George said.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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Marie Maynes
Marie Maynes is a Sports enthusiast and writes for the Sports section of ANH.