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Clippers make biggest gamble in NBA history on James Harden

As recently as the 2018-19 NBA campaign, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all finished top 10 in MVP voting. Westbrook, Harden and Leonard actually placed 1-2-3 in 2017, respectively, and George took third two years later. They are now teammates on the Los Angeles Clippers.

Team owner Steve Ballmer has built a fantasy basketball team, trading a handful of draft picks and another filled with expiring contracts to the Philadelphia 76ers for Harden, but has he compiled it five years too late?

Leonard, who turned 32 years old in June, is the youngest of the bunch, and that is alarming. The 2016-17 campaign is the last time he played more than 60 games in a season. Issues with his right knee have cut short four of the six seasons since. Tendinopathy limited him to nine games in 2017-18. A torn ACL ended his 2021 playoff run and cost him the entire 2021-22 season. And a meniscus tear removed him from last season's playoffs.

Of course, the one season he did finish in that span outside of a bizarre bubble experience, Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship, capturing a second Finals MVP award. To mix metaphors, that is the stick, dangling the carrot (carat?), upon which this entire extremely expensive experiment is built. The four future Hall of Famers will cost Ballmer $130 million in salary this season and about the same in taxes.

The vision is clear. Harden, who led the NBA in assists per game last season, can now set the table for two elite scoring wings, elevating the offensive efficiency of Leonard and George, whose defense can also mask Harden's inefficiencies on that end. Westbrook should serve as a hyperactive playmaker off the bench in a rotation that also boasts well-paid role players Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, Ivica Zubac, Mason Plumlee and Terance Mann (the sticking point in an offseason version of this trade the Clippers reportedly rejected).

That vision is predicated on more tenuous threads than the connective tissue in Leonard's right knee.

The injection of Harden into any situation beyond one built solely to appease him has not just been difficult, it has been downright destructive. Since the 2017-18 season, when a 28-year-old Harden led the Houston Rockets within a win of upsetting the Golden State Warriors at the peak of their dynasty, he has subverted All-NBA partnerships with Chris Paul, Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid, holding three franchises hostage by requesting trades in consecutive calendar years in search of everything but a title.

Paul, Westbrook and Durant all reportedly took issue with Harden's lack of commitment to the team, either on the court, off or both, and ex-Sixers coach Doc Rivers essentially said the same for Embiid. Harden quit on all of them and conceded that his ill-preparedness contributed to his decline in health. He combined to miss 20 games from 2014-2020, when he logged five top-three MVP finishes, but injuries to both hamstrings and both feet have cost him 18-plus games and lingered into the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

In October 2021, Harden rejected a three-year, $161 million extension from the Brooklyn Nets that would have started this season and paid him north of $55 million in 2025-26, believing an even more lucrative offer awaited in 2022, but concerns over his commitment and health have since left him chasing the difference.

That tab is already $30 million and counting. Enter Ballmer, whose net worth of more than $100 billion makes him by far the NBA's wealthiest governor. He is desperate to deliver the franchise's first title but maybe even more so to remain relevant when the Clippers open their new arena in the 2024-25 season.

Harden is worth the investment from Ballmer if he can deliver both, but we are now running on a decade's worth of evidence that suggests he sees his value through a lens of his own showmanship. Those realities are diametrically opposed. The Clippers need Harden to buy into the team in a contract year, but he has cashed out on little more than his own self-interest throughout his career. Never mind the backdrop for this drama is Los Angeles, Harden's hometown, where the nightlife beckons his reputation for hard partying.

James Harden got his wish and was traded to the Clippers early Tuesday, but now the question is whether this Clippers team can work together. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
James Harden got his wish and was traded to the Clippers early Tuesday, but now the question is whether this Clippers team can work together. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Then, there is Harden's history of disappearing from the playoff stage. The latest chapter came in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, when he shot 12 for 55 (21.8 FG%) in four losses to the Boston Celtics, even if his two 40-point games pushed the series to seven games. There is always a crumb to follow into a Harden partnership, only he often eats his way out of it (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Even if Leonard can keep his legs beneath him and Harden can work against his heliocentric type-casting, the Clippers are also leaning heavily on George and Westbrook to make this work. Like Leonard, George has played no more than 54 games in a season for four years running. And like Harden, Westbrook's high-usage brand of basketball has all too often undermined his team's ability to compete for a championship.

These are four of the most reliably unreliable superstars of their generation. Just add Irving as a fifth.

Leonard and George have played together for four seasons in Los Angeles and finished just one of them both healthy, blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the 2020 playoffs inside the bubble. George and Westbrook played two seasons together on the Oklahoma City Thunder and never won a playoff series. Westbrook and Harden played one season together in Houston and both left wanting to play elsewhere.

Now, the Clippers are banking on all four maximizing each other in their mid-30s without a training camp to prepare. Pray for head coach Tyronn Lue, for even the superstar whisperer cannot bend eight ears at once.

And if he does not, Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook can all become free agents at season's end for a team that does not own the rights to its first-round draft pick until 2030. They are all daring Ballmer not to pay them in advance of the Intuit Dome's grand opening. What could go wrong? Anything, everything, and any one untangled thread could unravel this entire $325 million championship gamble by the Clippers.

Must be nice to sport such deep pockets. But even free fantasy teams cannot afford this much risk at once.