As teams with NBA title ambitions in Milwaukee and Boston fortified their rosters in recent weeks and days, the Clippers arrived at training camp with a roster virtually unchanged from the end of last season.
That began to change late Monday, when after months of discussions with Philadelphia, the Clippers and 76ers began to move toward finalizing a trade that would see All-Star guard James Harden land in Los Angeles, according to people with knowledge of the discussions not authorized to disclose them publicly.
In addition to Harden, the Clippers are receiving P.J. Tucker, a 38-year-old defensive stalwart forward and career 36% three-point shooter.
The cost: Future draft picks, and trading away Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington — their trio of veteran forwards, all on expiring contracts — as well as young forward Kenyon Martin Jr., who was acquired from Houston during the offseason. The draft picks represented perhaps the most important element in getting traction on the deal. The Clippers will send Philadelphia their 2028 first-round pick, another first-round pick routed from another team that has yet to be identified, two future second-round picks and a pick swap. Terms of the deal were confirmed by the person briefed on the trade discussions.
Philadelphia was said to desire a pair of future first-round picks, with the intent of turning around and using them to bolster their own roster.
The Clippers sought to keep Terance Mann, the former second-round pick who had developed into a starter this season, out of the deal and ultimately succeeded. Mann has yet to make his season debut while recovering from an ankle injury; in the new iteration of the roster, the 27-year-old would in all certainty play off of the bench.
The move was made with obvious championship intentions — the hope of team owner Steve Ballmer and team president Lawrence Frank that Harden’s future Hall of Fame credentials and playmaking would complement Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to bring the Clippers their long-sought first NBA title and excite their fanbase as the team prepares to move into their new arena in Inglewood next season.
Leonard and George have long been supportive of such a move, and Harden and starting guard Russell Westbrook have previously played together in Oklahoma City and Houston. How four future Hall of Fame players, all of whom have been the focal points of a team’s offense at various points in their careers, mesh within an isolation-heavy offense will become one of the NBA’s most unknown subplots.
“Who will sacrifice what would be fascinating,” one league executive said recently when asked about the combination. A smooth ending is hardly assured.
“I don’t think they need that, but it would add talent,” said Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach from 2013 to 2020, who coached Harden last season and is now an ESPN analyst, when asked before the season about the potential of adding Harden.
“Adding talent doesn’t always just do it, if you know what I mean,” Rivers said then. “They do play a style, they do run a lot of iso stuff with Kawhi and then with PG, so if you look at James and James’ style, it fits in. But if there’s a third guy that stops the ball, would that be good or bad? I’m not sure.”
In 2021 Harden asked out of Houston, the franchise where he’d blossomed into the 2017-18 league most valuable player. Two seasons ago, he asked out of Brooklyn. In late June he asked out of Philadelphia when a long-term contract offer to his liking never came. The 34-year-old Harden will become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
The trade ends a campaign of discomfort waged by Harden against the 76ers since June, when he opted into the final season of his contract, worth $35.6 million, with the demand of being traded and with the Clippers his preferred destination. When talks between the 76ers and interested teams, including the Clippers, fell short of Philadelphia’s stated and steep asking price of either a star to pair with 76ers center Joel Embiid or assets that could help the them eventually acquire such a talent, Harden’s frustration went public.
In August, Harden was in China on a tour with Adidas when he called 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey a “liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.” For that, the league docked Harden $100,000. This was Harden going against Morey, the executive who had aided his rise to superstardom a decade earlier by trading for the Oklahoma City sixth man and building Houston’s franchise around his every wish and jump shot.
Yet that relationship didn’t keep Harden from holding back. In September, shortly before Philadelphia opened training camp, a video appeared on TikTok that showed Harden partying in Houston while a woman held a sign reading “Daryl Morey is a Liar.” Harden did not appear at Philadelphia’s media day nor at its first practice before attending the second day of practices. He had spent a week away from the team before reporting again to Philadelphia in recent days.
Though the Clippers were Harden’s understood preference, they were hardly in a Harden-or-bust philosophy. When coveted defender Jrue Holiday became available in a trade from Milwaukee to Portland, the Clippers tried to pry him from Portland. Some within the team believed the team came extremely close to winning the bidding war for Holiday, who ultimately went to Boston.