James Harden arrived home in Los Angeles this week not only as a former NBA most valuable player and league leader in scoring and assists but as a 34-year-old guard on his fourth team in three years, in the final year of his contract, yet to win a championship.
Harden wants to show “I'm very elite as an individual and then I can fit in with anybody and make a championship run work,” he said Thursday, in his first comments since being traded. “So I think all of us are on the same page in the sense of the individual stats and all those things are past us and we all got one goal and I think everybody knows what that is.”
Three days after Philadelphia and the Clippers agreed to terms, Harden played in a scrimmage against coaches and some of the team’s younger players Thursday at the team’s Playa Vista practice facility. He is expected to debut Monday against New York at Madison Square Garden.
It was an introduction four months in the making. When Harden opted into the final year of his contract worth $35 million in June, he did so while making clear he wanted to be traded to the Clippers because of its established core of Leonard, George and Westbrook and its location near his family in Southern California.
He attributed his falling out with the 76ers and top executive Daryl Morey — an abrupt turn in a once extremely close relationship, after Morey had previously championed Harden by trading for him while in Houston and elevating him from bench player to franchise cornerstone, before reuniting in Philadelphia two years ago — to “the business side of it, so out of my control.”
Harden said he had sacrificed his scoring for more pass-first facilitating — likening it to “being on a leash” — and $26 million in salary with the 76ers because he thought he would retire with the franchise.
“And the front office had other plans,” he said. “They didn't want me, and it is that simple. There's more detail, more to where I can't talk about, but there's a lot of narratives and I don't have social media, but there's a lot of narratives and people talking than just they have people think they have an opinion or voice and other people listen to it, know what I mean?
“But none of that is true and I'm not the type to go back and forth or be explaining to myself because you're always going to take something out of what I say and make it into a different story. So long story short, I'm happy I'm here. I'm excited to be able to show how good individually, how good this team can be and is going to be.”
On Wednesday, coach Tyronn Lue said he hadn’t had the time yet to speak with incumbent starting point guard Russell Westbrook and Harden about how the team’s ballhandling responsibilities would be divided when they play together. George called them “two different beasts” who had chemistry from playing previously in Oklahoma City and Houston. Those situations aren’t necessarily a template, with Westbrook calling it “obviously different.”
“I don’t predict the future. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know, bro,” Westbrook said Wednesday after a loss to the Lakers that left the Clippers 3-2. “But it's going to be a process. It's going to be ups and downs, going to be good games, bad games. It's not just going to come together and mesh and we're going to be perfectly fine. That's unrealistic expectations for everybody. The realistic expectations, like I said, it's going to be a process. I don't have the answer to what that is.”
That process means “understanding it’s one basketball,” George said.
“We've talked leading up to it,” George said. “The reason why he's here, we wanted him here. And so I mean, we all said we think we can make it work, we'll figure it out, but we've obviously got to practice, we got to play for us to really get on the same page.”
Harden said he is malleable enough to get on the same page, saying he changed his style in Brooklyn to accommodate lineups with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid. The Clippers have “a lot of really unselfish players,” he said.
Harden wants “a voice to where I can, ‘Hey, coach, I see this. What you think about this?’ Then it's like, OK, somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me, that I'm just not a system player; I am a system. You know what I mean?
“So somebody that can have that dialogue with me and understand and move forward and figure out and make adjustments on the fly throughout the course of games, that's all I really care about. It's not about me scoring ... 34 points. I've done that already.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.