A Harden Habit To Break

Steve Ballmer has $81 billion in net worth, a history of getting what he wants, a thirst for basketball and a ticking clock.

Thanks to his genius and motivation, he bulldozed his way into leadership positions at Microsoft and brought that passion to the NBA when he rescued the Los Angeles Clippers from the stench of decades of being run as a plaything and a safe haven for the mistresses of its slumlord owner Donald Sterling. Under Sterling, best decscribed as a somewhat less political but equally intelligent West Coast answer to another real estate maven named Donald, the Clippers were a punchline.  Moving from San Diego to Los Angeles just as Jerry Buss was starting Showtime, the Clippers played for years at the rapidly deteriorating Los Angeles Sports Arena, a facility the Lakers had vacated 16 years earlier, and rarely put anything resembling a competitive team on the floor.  In one of the few years they did make the playoffs, the riots connected to the Rodney King riots cost them home playoff games.  Actual crowd size was often a fraction of what was actually reported, even when they seized upon the opportunity to be the Lakers’ co-tenant at the Staples Center.  They still play a majority of their home games on weekend afternoons and less desirable evenings, the third priority at best after the Lakers and NHL Kings.

It’s no small coincidence that as soon as Ballmer bought the franchise the Clippers began to at least become relevant.  They made a spirited playoff run led by Chris Paul in 2015, and have been aggressive pursuers and eventual landing spots for numerous high-priced free agents since.  Ballmer is an impassioned, emotional, outspoken fan unafraid to show emotion or back it with his ample wallet.  He is a less polished version of Mark Cuban, one of the few NBA personalities who can go toe-to-toe with him in technology or bank statements.  And so that he finally has center stage, he is building his Clippers an impressive new Westside arena adjacent to new area crown jewel SoFi Stadium, blocks from the Forum the Lakers gave up when they moved downtown, and even dropped a spare $400 million to buy the aging Forum away from the company owned by James Dolan to make sure his Inuit Center would see the light of day.

He’s assembled an impressive but brittle roster of veterans, including Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and, most recently, Russell Westbrook, and the oldest roster in the NBA.  In the Orlando bubble that served as the home for the 2020 playoffs, they blew a 3-1 lead on Denver when George inexplicably lost the motivation to continue playing.  They were able to sprint to the Western Conference finals in 2021, but were ousted by Paul and the Phoenix Suns.  In ensuing seasons, they have been snakebit by injuries, especially to Leonard, despite a concerted effort to load-manage his availability during the regular season.

It’s the perfect storm for James Harden to step into.  And despite the fact that no other NBA team had seriosu interest in yet another aging and brittle star, despite the fact that he has quit on someone he once called his best friend, Daryl Morey, twice, with two different franchises, most recently publicly shaming him for allegedly lying about eventual compensation despite two consecutive playoff chokes of his own, despite the fact that even after he attempted to save the Brooklyn Nets from themselves when injuries and attitude derailed their own attempt for relevance and success in a two-team market dominated by an incumbent, Steve Ballmer believes James Harden will lead him to the promised land of an NBA title, or at least a Finals, which the Clippers didn’t even make when they began life as the Buffalo Braves.

It’s important to have that context, because how else can one explain the trade that BLEACHER REPORT’s Erin Walsh reported on yesterday, as well as Harden’s public happiness at the move :

There’s no one more excited for the trade that sent James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Los Angeles Clippers than the three-time scoring champion himself.

“You don’t understand,” Harden told reporters Tuesday when asked how excited he is to be in Los Angeles, per ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk.

The 76ers traded Harden, P.J. Tucker and Filip Petrusev to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night in exchange for Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nic Batum, KJ Martin and multiple draft picks. 

Harden had been clamoring for a trade to the Clippers since he requested a move from the Sixers in June when he picked up his player option for 2023-24.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to understand.  The 34-year-old Harden won’t be the oldest player on the team (that distinction now belongs to the 38-year-old Tucker), and he is effectively a cog in what will amount to an NBA 2K-type strategy that CBS SPORTS’ James Herbert attempted to explain:

In James Harden’s last full season with the Houston Rockets, they tried something radical, swapping their rim-protecting center (Clint Capela) for a 3-and-D forward (Robert Covington) and betting that the benefits — spacing for Russell Westbrook and Harden, speed, switchability — would outweigh the big, glaring drawback: No one in the rotation was taller than 6-foot-8.

What if that Houston team, which went out in the bubble starting Harden and Westbrook next to Eric Gordon, Covington and Tucker, could have swapped two of its supporting characters for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? And what if, instead of punting on traditional bigs, it was able to add all of this skill while maintaining its size?  This is the promise of the Los Angeles Clippers. By acquiring Harden and Tucker from the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, they can throw out a Harden-Westbrook-George-Leonard-Tucker lineup, switch just about everything, and, in theory at least, pile up points playing 5-out.

Were this indeed a game of 2K, and if this did not actually involve physical health or commitment from a player devoid of it for the most part during the 2020s, that might actually be a compelling argument.  IF they can remain healthy, they will likely score, and will certainly be an entertaining storyline as Ballmer seeks to sell tickets to his new arena.  But as Herbert reminds, there is no guarantee the Clippers team that takes the floor next fall will look anything like the one being putting out there now: Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook could all be free agents in July.

And it’s not like the current Clippers are awful; indeed, last night’s patchwork squad was more than adequate, as George and Westbrook led the Clips to a 118-102 win over an upstart Orlando Magic team that took the Lakers to overtime on the same floor the night before.  The Clippers were 3-1 without Harden, though it is expected that he will be ready to go tonight with a “Hallway Series” showdown with the Lakers and national TV looming, and a road trip to New York City to face the Knicks and Nets looming next week.

And yep, people will be watching, especially when Harden sets foot on the Barclay Center floor which he gave up on midway through the 2021-22 season. when Kevin Durant couldn’t stay healthy and Kyrie Irving was determined to let his mindset dictate his availability to the team.

And I have little doubt that Ballmer will be a presence at every one of those games, cheering, imploring, and hawking.  While Harden collects his substantial salary which, to Ballmer, is relative chump change.

It’s no surprise even the most ardent Clipper fans in my social media feed reacted to this trade with phrases like “NOOOOOOO!!!!” , as if this were some cruel Halloween joke.  As Bill Simmons astutely observed on his podcast last night, it’s likely the timing of this being announced around midnight Los Angeles time–3 a.m. Philadelphia time–speaks to the level of shame and almost inexcusable behavior Ballmer is exhibiting in pursuing this move.   Much like how Harden tends to pursue lap dances.  He should know there’s a couple of really decent strip clubs within a short Uber X ride of Staples Center–I suspect he has far deeper knowledge than I do.  From what I know of the neighborhood near the Inuit Dome, there’s not much beyond bodegas and cheap hotels.  But, of course, that could be a moot point by then.

“You don’t understand”?  Sorry, James, I think we do.  You and your new boss go play nice now, you hear?


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