For the Los Angeles Clippers fans, November hit differently this year. Having acquired James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers via a trade, the target for this season became unmistakably obvious. Nothing less than the Larry O’Brien Trophy will do.
Harden, the NBA MVP in 2018 and a ten-time All-Star, joins Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook on the Clippers roster. Leonard is a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, George an eight-time All-Star, and Westbrook the 2017 league MVP as well as the all-time leader in triple-doubles. Not too bad.
On paper, they also seem to have complementing pieces. Ivica Zubac and Mason Plumlee are traditional big men while P.J. Tucker can fill the modern small-ball-big-man role; Terance Mann, Norman Powell, and others will be expected to contribute off the bench. But in the business end, everything will come down the the four superstars, because that is just the way it is in the NBA – or almost any other sport, really.
Recent history suggests that one star is usually not enough to contend, while two in their prime or thereabouts give a reasonable chance. If you can get three, it can go either way. Some succeed, but more fail miserably, because there is usually no room for further movement.
But four? It almost never works … and yes, the Warriors do not count as they came together almost organically (also, adding Kevin Durant to THAT roster was never a fair move). For others that have tried, the step from title challengers to a travelling circus can be a small one.
The last team to arguably try and pull it off were the Brooklyn Nets in 2020-21 when they had Durant and Kyrie Irving on their books before trading for… James Harden (the fourth star was either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, depending on who you ask). They came within centimeters of beating the soon-to-be champions Bucks in a memorable Game 7, but as one etched their name down in history, the other was forgotten.
He has been in this situation before. Harden, now 34, was expected to be the leading man for the Houston Rockets, but he never helped them to the Finals despite having a go with different side-kicks ranging from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul. He put up historic numbers, won the MVP, and pretty much guaranteed himself a spot in the Hall of Fame, but it was not enough.
When he grew older and possibly wiser, Harden tried turning into a sidekick himself. As a Net, he was battling an injury in the aforementioned series with the Bucks; after becoming disillusioned with the franchise, he jumped onto the Philadelphia 76ers bandwagon to join Joel Embiid. Again, it did not work out for various reasons before ending ugly.
The Clippers might offer him his last shot at a ring, but Harden’s biggest what-if moment goes all the way back to the summer of 2012. Coming off a Sixth Man of the Year award and a Finals appearance with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he had a chance to sign an extension and give himself a fighting chance on a team that could only get better. But it was about money and being the alpha dog for him.
“I thought we were going to be together forever. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Kevin Durant,” Harden reminisced in 2014. “But I felt like I already made a sacrifice coming off the bench and doing whatever it takes to help the team, and they were not willing to help me.”
Westbrook, nine months older than Harden, grew up in the same area in Los Angeles. They played ball before they were teenagers and remained friends. Fate would ensure they would meet again in Oklahoma, “in the middle of nowhere” in their own words, with Westbrook being the fourth pick of the draft in 2008 and Harden going third a year later.
But while Harden jumped ship in 2012, Westbrook stayed. With him and Durant, OKC came close in 2014 and 2016 but did not make the NBA Finals again. After coming up short in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, Durant walked away as a free agent.
That did not please Westbrook. For a time, the two were not on speaking terms. While Westbrook exploded on the court, averaging a triple-double (the first to do it since 1962) and winning the MVP award in 2016-17, Durant got his hands on the title with the Warriors.
Westbrook then had triple-double seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19 as well, but the Thunder never managed to put the pieces together around him. He wanted better, but has been searching ever since: it did not work out with Harden in Houston, a year with the mediocre Washington Wizards was never his preferred option, and a season-and-a-half as a Laker is best forgotten.
After losing Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder had their best chance in 2017-18, when Westbrook was joined by All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in another Big Three. Carmelo might have been past his prime in his 16th NBA season, but George, a year-and-a-half younger than Westbrook, had learned the ropes at the competitive Indiana Pacers before becoming their main man without much success.
But it did not click for them in Oklahoma, with George never becoming the go-to man everyone expected him to be. Two seasons and two early play-off exits later, George was dealt away to the Clippers; having grown up in the area as well, an hour north of Los Angeles, he had always wanted to come back home. And he realized something else with the Thunder.
“I had to be honest to myself that in order for me to win at the highest level, I don’t think I am the number one guy. I can be. I can score with the best. I can take over games with the best. But I don’t honestly think that is what my game is if I want to win a championship,” he explained on former pro JJ Redick’s podcast.
That evaluation made him a great fit for the Clippers, who shocked the league by confirming the signing of both George and Kawhi Leonard on July 6th, 2019. Both had their eyes set on a return to Los Angeles, but most expected either of them to end up at the Lakers with LeBron James. But the Clippers persuaded them.
It almost happened eight years earlier in Indiana. Much like George, whom the Pacers chose with the tenth pick in 2010, Kawhi Leonard was not a superstar coming into the league in 2011. He fell down to the 15th pick and into the hands of the Pacers, who then traded him to the San Antonio Spurs straight away – the Pacers felt they needed a proven point guard instead.
Their mistake became obvious quite quickly. Under the guidance of Gregg Popovich and alongside Spurs legends Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, Leonard improved his game to the point that he finished his third season as the Finals MVP.
Over time, Leonard also became everyone’s favorite down-to-earth guy. The quiet, humble guy who drove an old Chevy Tahoe to practice – but injuries surfaced, and in the end, disagreements over how long he should stay out pushed him to look for a move. He was traded to the Toronto Raptors and led them to their first-ever NBA title, cementing himself as a bona fide superstar.
But he, too, wanted to come back home after growing up just east of Los Angeles in Moreno Valley. Enter the Clippers. Four seasons in, pairing him with George has not helped the franchise win a ring. It has been a rare occurrence to see them both healthy and firing on all cylinders. But they have not lost hope yet.
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The Clippers are yet to win an NBA championship in their 53 years of history. Neither have Harden, Westbrook, and George. This season can put a lot of demons to rest – or make them resurface. It is up to the four of them to figure it out.