NBA

What Impact Does the James Harden Trade Have on the 2023-24 NBA Season?

By Scott Kacsmar

The NBA is no stranger to blockbuster trades, and this week featured another one with the Philadelphia 76ers sending disgruntled guard and future Hall of Famer James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The full trade sent Harden, P.J. Tucker, and Filip Petrušev to Los Angeles in exchange for Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nic Batum, Kenyon Martin Jr., a first-round pick, two second-round picks, a pick swap, and cash from the Clippers.

In the short term, this creates a new super team for the Clippers, who have seen their NBA Finals odds improve from +2700 before the season started to +1300, the fifth-highest odds in the league.

As for the 76ers, they still have a talented roster led by reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Interestingly enough, their odds for the Finals remain unchanged as they are still +2800 to win it all (ranked ninth). The 76ers have infamously not advanced past the semifinal round since the 2000-01 season when Allen Iverson led the team to the NBA Finals.

At 34 years old, Harden still seeks his first championship ring as he joins his fifth different franchise. Can he be the final piece to a championship in LA, and does this move truly impact the 76ers? We break down the trade going forward this season.

James Harden and the Recent History of NBA Super Teams

You can still blame the 2007-08 Boston Celtics for NBA teams wanting to get a “Big 3” or “Big 4” and have a super team to compete for championships in today’s NBA. In a way, this is why fans appreciated seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo (2020-21 Bucks) and Nikola Jokic (2022-23 Nuggets) stay with their teams and lead them to a championship in a more natural team-building way.

But Harden is no stranger to playing with other great talents, making his path to LA written in the stars.

Harden started his career in Oklahoma City with a young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they were bigger stars than he was. After branching out on his own in Houston, Harden eventually teamed up with future Hall of Famer Chris Paul on some very good teams that had playoff misfortune and never reached the Finals. We won’t mention the 2018 Rockets missing 27 3-point shots in a row against the Warriors in a Game 7 (whoops).

But in the 2020s, the COVID years, the attempts at super teams around the NBA have largely flopped due to injuries. The 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets put together a very intriguing Big 3 with Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, but injuries and bad luck doomed those teams from ever reaching their potential. We barely ever got to see them all on the court together, and perhaps nothing hurt more than when Harden pulled up with an injury less than a minute into Game 1 of the semifinals series against the Bucks, which would result in a Game 7 loss for the Nets.

In record time, that Big 3 dissolved in Brooklyn, and Harden was traded to the 76ers in February 2022 to team with Joel Embiid. But the end result was another disappointing semifinal playoff loss to Miami in a series where Harden only averaged 18.2 points per game and shot 40.5% from the field. After tying the series at 2-2, Harden was minus-45 in the losses in Games 5 and 6.

Hoping their first full year together would do the trick, Harden and Embiid both suffered injuries that cost Harden 24 games in the regular season and Embiid, the MVP, some key time in the postseason.

But without Embiid in Game 1 of the semifinals in Boston, Harden shined with a vintage, clutch performance. He scored 45 points and helped the 76ers to a huge upset win. While Embiid returned for Game 2, he was not 100%, and he only shot 42.1% from the field in the series after a regular season that saw him shoot a career-best 54.8%.

It was Harden who was keeping the 76ers alive in the series as he dropped another 42-point gem in a Game 4 win. Harden also had 17 points and 10 assists in a Game 5 win as the 76ers led 3-2.

But in the final two games of the series, Harden only scored a combined 22 points, shot 7-for-27 from the field, and Embiid also bombed with 15 points in a 24-point loss in Game 7 in Boston.

It would be the final game Harden played for Philadelphia. Despite picking up his player option to remain with the team, Harden requested a trade. The messy situation played out publicly leading into the regular season, and Harden even called Daryl Morey a liar and that he’d never play for one of his teams or ever even talk to him again. Morey is Philadelphia’s president of basketball operations and was the general manager behind Harden’s run in Houston.

With Harden being told to stay away from the team while regular season games were going on, it was becoming a distraction with the league even wanting to investigate why a healthy player was not playing. Finally, the trade was announced Monday night that sent Harden to the Clippers.

A new Super Team Just Dropped in LA

The Clippers are just the NBA’s latest super team, but it has a chance to be one of the best ones with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook joining Harden with one of the best head coaches in the league (Tyronn Lue).

It is painfully early, and Harden has not even played yet, but through 4 games, the Clippers were 3-1 and had the No. 1 Net Rating (+16.3) in the league.

How does The Bearded One fit in with the Clippers? It should work well, in theory. Harden will play with what has to be the best duo of forwards he’s ever played with in Leonard and George. Leonard continues to be a mid-range God, and everyone in LA is now a solid rebounder without having a dominant big man as Ivica Zubac is the starting center.

Westbrook and Harden have played together in Oklahoma City and Houston, so there is plenty of experience there as they can share point guard responsibilities and make life easier for each other. Westbrook’s much-maligned shooting has actually been off to a decent start in 2023, and on a roster stacked like this, he does not need to take a high volume of shots at all. Westbrook is also second on the team with 7.0 rebounds per game.

As we saw in Philadelphia, Harden can still be a 20/10 player as he averaged 21.0 points and a league-high 10.7 assists per game last season. An occasional 40-point game is not out of his reach, and he’s always been one of the best at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. But his passing can really help Leonard and George as scorers who can also create their own shots well.

Under Lue, the Clippers have been one of the more efficient shooting teams in the league, and while they traded away some depth to get Harden, they still have effective bench players in Norman Powell (shooting .409 from 3P with the Clippers) and Bones Hyland.

While Harden, Westbrook, and George have a bad reputation in the playoffs due to their lack of any rings, Leonard is really the player who can tie this all together and lead the way for this team. In his last 13 playoff games since 2021, Leonard is averaging 31.0 points with 7.5 rebounds and shooting 56.8% from the field. The problem is Leonard has missed 11 playoff games in that time.

Health has been the downfall of numerous super teams this decade, and health is unfortunately a high risk for this team in Los Angeles. Look what happened last year when the Clippers were down to featuring Westbrook in the first-round playoff series against the Suns because of injuries to Kawhi and George. No matter how much “load management” the Clippers wanted to give their stars, they still weren’t there in the biggest games of the year.

Despite red-hot shooting from Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, the undermanned Clippers were right there with the Suns in that series. Now imagine if you add Leonard, George, and Harden to that mix. It is a better team on paper than the Suns, who are still a little top-heavy with Booker and Durant.

Relying on a team with four stars who are in the 32-to-35 range in age is a risky proposition. But Steph Curry and the Warriors are not getting any younger, and Durant and Booker are not the most durable players around for Phoenix.

That leaves Denver (+500 at FanDuel) as the favorites to repeat in the Western Conference, but if the Clippers develop over the course of a season and get to play that team in a playoff series, it would not be a hard stretch to see the Clippers winning a best-of-7 series.

While adding Harden has literally never led to a championship for any NBA team, it is at least logical to see the intrigue in how this team can work together to create something special. A super team has to get through the most important games of the season all healthy at some point again, right? The NBA has been cursed in that regard for the last few years, but it would be nice to see the best of the best get a shot in the spring to prove it, and do not underestimate the value of a coach like Lue managing this many Hall of Fame talents.

Does the Status Quo Even Change in Philadelphia?

Shifting the focus to the 76ers, it is amusing that they lost a former MVP, the 2022-23 season’s leader in assists, and the guy who had multiple 40-point games against Boston in the playoffs, and their NBA Finals odds did not change.

It might be even more amusing if the 76ers get better without Harden. The team has only played 3 games, but they are 2-1 with a 1-point loss in Milwaukee on a night where Damian Lillard was just special for the Bucks.

The 76ers still have Joel Embiid, but the emerging star here may be Tyrese Maxey, who is currently leading the odds (+200 at FanDuel) for Most Improved Player. Maxey turns 23 years old this week, has steadily improved each season, and he has started this year on fire with 30.3 points per game. He shoots 41.8% from 3-point territory for his career.

If Maxey is ready to take off as a consistent big scorer to go along with Embiid, then the 76ers have a chance to be a better team under new coach Nick Nurse, who won a championship with Toronto. Tobias Harris is still there at forward, one of the better No. 3 or No. 4 options in the league.

Another under-the-radar addition in Philadelphia is forward Kelly Oubre Jr., who averaged a career-high 20.3 points per game for the Hornets last season. He scored 27 points in his team debut against Milwaukee, and he is having a good start to his season.

Things are going to look different with these 76ers, who cannot rely on Embiid to average 7.0 assists for the whole season as he has for 3 games. His previous career high is 4.2 assists per game. But they can make up Harden’s production as a facilitator through a series of guys in Embiid, Maxey, and De’Anthony Melton. The scoring production is also easily covered by Maxey and Oubre stepping up. Harris can also do more for this team. Embiid has won back-to-back scoring titles.

With Philadelphia, it comes down to Embiid staying healthy for the playoff run, delivering in those big games, and maybe Nurse will have more playoff success than Doc Rivers did. But the 76ers are going to have to beat teams like Boston and Milwaukee if they ever want to get past the semifinals and back to the Finals.

Conclusion: Don’t Expect a 76ers-Clippers Finals

The recent lack of success for super teams can largely be attributed to injuries, as I’m not sure NBA fans give enough attention to just how many superstars have missed significant action in the last couple of seasons. Playing 82 games (or even 70) is a pipe dream these days.

That’s not to take anything away from what recent champions did, but between the injuries and things like Kyrie Irving refusing a vaccine so that he’d only play road games, or Ja Morant’s antics off the court hurting an up-and-coming Memphis team, we have seen some weird results in the NBA as of late.

It would be fantastic to see a healthy season for the stars to see if Harden can get it done in LA for his first ring if Kawhi can win a third Finals MVP with a third different franchise to match LeBron James, or if this is finally Embiid’s year in the Eastern Conference to lead Philly to the NBA Finals.

What’s the best bet to make after the Harden trade? It probably makes it very likely that Tyrese Maxey will win Most Improved Player as he gets to shine more in his fourth season. But I would probably hold off on picking a 76ers-Clippers Finals, or even picking either team to go the distance this year given the challengers from Boston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Golden State, etc.

But it would be nice to see a season play out legitimately without injuries as it wouldn’t have been improbable for the Clippers to beat Denver last postseason if they had Leonard and George available. Now when you add Harden to the mix, this could be a fun season if we’re lucky.

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