Clippers' top brass says James Harden will make the sacrifices necessary to contend for a title

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James Harden, left, sits next to Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George as visits the locker room prior to an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Los Angeles. The Philadelphia 76ers have agreed on a trade to send guard James Harden to the Clippers. (AP Photo/Joe Reedy)

LOS ANGELES – Although James Harden is a superstar joining a team already loaded with stars, the Los Angeles Clippers' top brass thinks he will thrive in their galaxy.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday he isn't sure when Harden will make his debut following the blockbuster trade that brought the 10-time All-Star and 2018 NBA MVP home to Los Angeles from the Philadelphia 76ers.

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But Lue believes that when Harden plays alongside Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook this season, all four will make the adjustments necessary to turn the Clippers into a prime contender for Harden's first NBA title.

“Sacrifice is going to be the biggest thing,” Lue said. “Four guys from LA, and four guys that have done a lot in their careers. So they understand, and they’ve talked about just winning a championship. That’s all we’re focused on. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice, whether it’s shots, whether it’s minutes. They’re willing to do that.”

The Clippers gave up four players and a portion of their long-term draft position to add Harden and P.J. Tucker, shaking the foundation of their team just four games into the season. To Lawrence Frank and owner Steve Ballmer, the potential hazards of fielding a four-superstar lineup were far outweighed by the potential for greatness.

Frank, the Clippers' president of basketball operations, called Harden “a ceiling-raiser.”

“James Harden has an elite skill set, and all he cares about is one thing: He wants to win a championship for the LA Clippers,” Frank added. “He wants to be part of something bigger than himself. ... These (four) guys have all the individual accomplishments. They’ve made plenty of money. This is about one goal.”

While Harden badly wanted to play in his native Los Angeles after his relationship with the Sixers disintegrated, the Clippers are determined to escape the second-tier contender purgatory in which they've had 12 consecutive winning seasons and 10 playoff berths, yet just one conference finals appearance.

Harden can relate: He has made the playoffs in every season of his 14-year career, but has never won a ring.

Harden, who isn’t yet in game shape after his protracted divorce in Philly, arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday in time to watch the Clippers beat the Orlando Magic. Harden, Tucker and Lue's staff spent Wednesday morning going over the playbook for the Clippers, who got off to a 3-1 start with Leonard, George and Westbrook all looking healthy and sharp.

The Clippers faced the Lakers on Wednesday night before getting four consecutive days off between games. Lue plans to use that fortunate schedule quirk as a mini-training camp to figure out the rotations and preferences necessary for this new core to thrive.

“The good thing about the trade is we’re four games in, not 60 like last year” when Westbrook joined the team, Lue said. “We’re going to have a lot of time. It’s going to be a process. We understand that. We’re excited about the journey ahead, but these four days are going to be really good for us. Came at a perfect time just to try to get James and P.J. up to speed.”

While Harden’s debut won’t happen until next week at the earliest, Tucker was available to play Wednesday night against the Lakers, Lue said. Tucker has been playing for the Sixers while Harden left and returned in his contentious, extended breakup with the franchise.

Harden is a three-time NBA scoring champion best known for his prolific shooting abilities, but his game also can be superbly balanced. He led the NBA in assists last season, his fifth consecutive campaign with more than 10 assists per game.

When Lue was asked what excites him most about the trade, he immediately seized on Harden's passing and playmaking abilities, not the shooting talent that has already made him the 25th-leading scorer in NBA history.

Frank also profanely disagreed with a suggestion that Harden's presence could help the Clippers during stretches when Leonard and George are unavailable. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season while recovering from knee surgery, and he didn't play in more than 57 games in any of his other three seasons with the Clippers, frustrating many fans with absences that were sometimes attributed to rest rather than significant injury.

“There’s a difference between injuries and rest,” Frank said. “Kawhi and Paul, last year, were injured. These guys work extremely hard. ... These guys work too hard for their reputations to be impacted.”

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