There are volumes that could be written about what is wrong with the Los Angeles Clippers super team. After all the buzz James Harden started this summer, if you thought he’d arrive in top shape, ready to make one last push at a title with the Clippers, then you’re as gullible as any other team trading for have him this decade. Harden still hasn’t shown why he thought he deserved the massive extension he demanded from Daryl Morey.
If the Clippers lead guard, its usage rate has hit lows in Clipperland so far, and he’s averaging 4.5 assists per game in a reduced role. The footwork isn’t as fast as before, but the jerkiness is still there. But he’s still a black hole who beat down the offense. However, a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night is a reminder of how unreliable Harden can be on the floor.
Trailing the 2-8 Memphis Grizzlies, 101-98, Kawhi Leonard rushed the ball down the court with 40 seconds left, drove the lane and held up a pass to Harden in the right short corner. The home crowd held its breath during Harden’s release. and audibly let out a disappointed sigh as Harden hit the shot in the air. Par for the course.
In crunch time the ball gets heavier, palms get sweatier and some guys get mentally spaghettified. Harden with the ball in his hands in crunch time has always predicted grim endings. There are worse players than Harden in those heart-pounding moments, but few heliocentric superstars inspire as much disappointment as Harden over the years. In the final five minutes of games where the score is within five points or less, what Second Spectrum consider clutch time, Harden is a vibe killer. If he can’t twist his way to the line, he makes half-hearted foam that cracks the rim and generally leaves you. This is not a narrative that has emerged because of his poor reputation. The numbers back it up. Even during his MVP season, Harden was a mess in those pivotal moments that decide close contests.
Clutch performances from Russell Westbrook are the forgotten factor in why he was awarded the MVP over Harden in their tight 2017 race. In clutch time, Harden scored the second worst field goal percentage in the league of all qualified scorers who have attempted at least 50 field goals, shooting 35.5 percent from the field on 93 attempts and 27.3 percent from distance. In addition to averaging the first triple-double in five decades, Westbrook led the league in clutch scoring, drained a variety of game-winning baskets, shot 44.6 percent from the field and drained 33 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.
Since that 2017 campaign, Harden hasn’t done much to further his transformation into Mr. Counter Self Check in close matches. The last time Philly saw him in a pressure situation, he dropped just nine points in a Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Here’s how he fares according to Deadspin’s Stats & Info Dept. (also known as Microsoft Excel and Second Spectrum) in the regular season since 2017 has performed with many of his All-NBA peers.
FG% in clutch time (since 2017)
James Harden – .372 FG%
Damian Lillard- .391
Steph Kerrie- .430
Russell Westbrook – .430
Kawhi Leonard- .431
Kyrie Irving- .436
3-Point FG% in Clutch Time (Since 2017)
Not surprisingly, Steph Curry is the most accurate flamethrower from all distances even in clutch time. Kawhi Leonard is pretty bad from deep, but he makes up for it by being an automatic bucket on 2-point field goals. He came a long way from missing a free throw in Game 6 that would have made Ray Allen’s streak-extending 3-pointer.
And at least Kyrie Irving is worth the headache when he’s on the floor in crucial moments. We shouldn’t be surprised after he buried one of the most iconic shots in Finals history to complete an 0-3 comeback against the 73-win Warriors. He is undoubtedly the best ice-in-his-veins scorer in the league. However, when the going gets tough, Harden can’t get going. His .372 clutch field goal percentage since 2017 is the worst among his peers by a significant margin.
Tyronn Lue has a wealth of options beyond his latest acquisition. Harden will never turn down a shot, but he shouldn’t be their first, second or third option. Don’t believe the hype about Paul George. He is all effort and delivers great results when it’s time for superstars to step up. Surprisingly, Westbrook is even a better scorer than Harden under pressure.
Harden is the last person who should have the rock in his hands with the game on the line. It’s still early days, but the Clippers are getting first-hand experience of why The Beard was available for flea market prices on the trading block. Not only does he run away from title chases, he tends to shrink in the moments that define the legends.