LOS ANGELES – During James Harden‘s 13-minute introductory news conference with the LA Clippers on Thursday, following a blockbuster trade late Monday, the 34-year-old guard vacillated between expressing excitement about his future and disappointment about his past, a journey that has taken him to four teams in four years.
There are many reasons Harden set his sights on the Clippers after requesting to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers in June.
For him, Southern California is home, as it is for the team’s other three superstars Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook. In fact, his relationship with Westbrook goes back to the local Boys & Girls Club. And he first met George when they were in high school playing at a Skills Academy in Los Angeles. He deeply respects head coach Tyronn Lue. And he believes all of this gives him his best shot at winning his first championship.
And there are many reasons he wanted to leave the 76ers.
James knows there are a lot of narratives about him. By now, everyone within the basketball world has heard him call 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey a “liar” during a promotional appearance in China in August. They’ve seen him stiff-arm his way off multiple teams. And they’ve heard the rumblings that he’s temperamental.
But Harden made it clear that he feels misunderstood.
He never wanted to be a journeyman. In fact, he said he had every intention of retiring with the 76ers.
“The front office had other plans,” Harden said. “They didn’t want me.”
Harden was quick to point out his willingness to sacrifice, something that he believes often gets overshadowed during his short stint with the 76ers, from February 2022 through last season.
“Taking $26 million less to sign and make the team better,” Harden said. “Changing my role, which media [believed] is ball dominant, which my ball dominance is really effective. But changing my role, trying to change the narrative, trying to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win at the highest level… That’s not talked about. It’s the other BS.”
Harden has many laments about his two most recent stops in Brooklyn and Philadelphia.
In Brooklyn, injuries derailed the Big Three of him, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving from accomplishing anything beyond making the second round of the playoffs, hardly something to celebrate for a team that was widely projected to win a title.
And in Philadelphia, Harden made it clear that he felt as though he couldn’t be himself on or off the court. He said felt as though he were “on a leash,” restrained in both how he played and how he led.
When Harden was asked to clarify, he intimated that he felt unheard by then-coach Doc Rivers, who was fired in May following the 76ers’ second round playoff exit.
“I think the game and I’m a creator on the court, you know what I mean?” he said. “So, if I got a voice to where I can [say], ‘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. …I’m not a system player. I am a system.”
The obvious next question is will Harden feel as though he’s “on a leash” with the Clippers?
After all, he’ll be sharing a court Leonard, George and Westbrook, three guys who will eventually be in the Hall of Fame – alongside him. For this to work, all four stars will need to sacrifice.
Of course, Harden knows this.
He says he’s willing to do whatever is needed. He expressed wonderment over Lue’s basketball mind, calling the plays he draws up after timeouts “crazy” and “unbelievable.” And he said he’s not interested in his own stats.
“It’s not about me scoring a basketball, scoring 34 points,” Harden said. “I’ve done that already.”
Harden’s resume is eye-popping. He’s a 10-time All-Star, an MVP in 2018, a three-time scoring champion from 2018-20, and he led the league in assists last season with 10.7 a game.
Now, he says he cares most about winning a championship,
This will be interesting because the team’s other three stars are in a similar place, too.
They all went to high school within 100 miles of one another. They’re within two years of each other. They’ve each racked up their share of individual accolades. And they all claim to care more about Mr. Larry O’Brien than their own name at this point in their careers, wanting more than anything to win the Clippers’ first-ever title.
For Harden, he hopes this will be a chance to start over.
He’ll be near his family. He’ll be surrounded by teammates with whom he’s very familiar. He will be playing for a coach who he feels understands him.
Even though Harden is considered one of the basketball greats, he has been mired in so much drama over the last several years, Now he’s coming home to where it all began, and he hopes it’ll be a rebirth of sorts.
When asked if he feels he has anything to prove, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, everything,” he said. “That I’m very elite as an individual. And then I can fit in with anybody. And make a championship run work.”
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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