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With James Harden trade, Clippers go for it and 76ers move on

It appeared that the NBA’s business Monday night was done around 10 p.m. Pacific Time. That’s when the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic concluded their matchup to end a schedule of 11 games. Turns out, the night was only beginning for the LA Clippers as they hammered out a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers that had been in the works for the greater part of four months.

James Harden is finally going to the Clippers, ending a saga that began when Harden opted into the final year of his 76ers contract in late June. The deal was first reported by ESPN.

While it was clear the Clippers and 76ers were locked in on a Harden deal, the other players involved were not determined until about a quarter to midnight. The deal includes 38-year-old power forward P.J. Tucker and 2021 second-round pick Filip Petrušev from the 76ers, while the Clippers shipped Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and KJ Martin to Philadelphia. The 76ers also received a 2026 first-round pick (from the Clippers, via the Oklahoma City Thunder), a 2028 first-round pick, two second-round picks and a pick swap from LA, per league sources.

The deal leaves the Clippers with a big four of stars who are from Los Angeles County. Harden went to Artesia High School in Lakewood. Paul George went to Knight High School in Palmdale. Kawhi Leonard went to King High School in Riverside. And Russell Westbrook went to Leuzinger High School in Lawndale.

Those stars also are all in contract years. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has a guaranteed year left on his deal after this season, but he is almost certainly expected to have his contract addressed by next offseason.

All month, the conversation surrounding the Clippers has been about the different vibes and leadership voids being filled. But the reality was that a Harden transaction loomed. Now the main vibes for the Clippers are “Last Dance” ones. They’re trying to win it all with a two-time NBA Finals MVP in Leonard who hasn’t won in five years and three stars in Westbrook, Harden and George who haven’t won at all, just like the Clippers franchise.

For the 76ers, they get to move forward. In the short term, they can focus on Joel Embiid developing his partnership with clear-cut budding star Tyrese Maxey, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week who is set to hit restricted free agency next summer. New coach Nick Nurse has gotten Philadelphia off to a solid 2-1 start, nearly knocking off the Milwaukee Bucks on the road in the season opener while handling business at Toronto and in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. Philadelphia is the rare team that could open up significant cap space in 2024 to go with the stars already under team control.

As for Covington, Batum, Morris and Martin, they too are in contract years. Covington is a former Embiid teammate in Philadelphia and would be a welcomed addition given his special ability to be disruptive and force turnovers, a hallmark of any Nurse defense. Morris is a native of North Philadelphia. Batum doesn’t have the same connections to the 76ers franchise, but he was at least teammates with Patrick Beverley in LA. Martin is a teammate of Danuel House Jr.

This is a deal that makes the Clippers a lot smaller at the forward positions. Lue praised Covington after Sunday’s 123-83 win over the San Antonio Spurs for how well he handled the Victor Wembanyama assignment. But the Clippers were planning on being smaller at forward anyway. It was Terance Mann who was announced as the starter coming out of training camp over Covington and Batum. Morris had conspicuously been held out of all preseason games and regular-season games, while the Clippers still showed Morris working with the first unit during an open practice.

When Mann was announced as the starter, I wrote that it was a possible sign that Harden could fit the starting lineup as a smaller-sized unit with Westbrook, George, Leonard and Ivica Zubac in the event a trade went down. An early look at a new Clippers depth chart shows how this would look:

Clippers post-trade 2023 depth chart

There are still questions about how the Clippers will proceed. Some are assuming Westbrook will not start, but the depth chart above shows why that would not make any sense outside of a Lakers ecosystem; bringing Mann off the bench balances the depth chart, and Westbrook likely staggers with the bench more anyway with players such as Norman Powell and Mann. The dynamic between Westbrook and Harden will need an update, as the two parted ways from Houston in 2020 after a one-season reunion. But there is no conflict between Harden and Westbrook, a league source told The Athletic, and the two have always maintained a line of communication.

Petrušev is not expected to be a contributor to the Clippers, according to a team source, which could open up an additional roster spot on top of the one the team already has now with the trade. There’s a possibility that point guard Xavier Moon, who was part of final cuts ahead of Week 1, will be in consideration for one of those spots. The length lost in Covington and Batum is a current hole on the roster, but this isn’t the trade deadline. The Clippers have three months to evaluate and potentially find another deal to fully prepare the team for a deep postseason run. That is the main takeaway from the Clippers’ decision and execution of this Harden deal.

The Clippers could have stood pat and stuck with a team that featured Covington and Batum, but that would have been as risky as this deal to acquire Harden. Leonard and George remember the deal Phoenix made in February to add Kevin Durant at the deadline, and the Suns stayed aggressive and added Bradley Beal. Leonard and George drive the moves this team makes. Every year, those two get further from their primes and durability, a consideration in ongoing contract extension talks.

But those two players are still worth giving a legitimate chance to compete. That’s why Harden will be a Clipper. It will take a sacrifice from all of the stars to make this work, but Harden will be an intriguing offensive fit while allowing the Clippers to switch one through four defensively, providing active hands. If nothing else, Tucker can fill a Batum role without having to start like he has for the greater part of the past decade, being a strict off-ball player offensively and physical 15- to 20-minute presence (at most) defensively.

The timing of this deal makes this week interesting. After a back-to-back, the Clippers have four days off before road games at New York and Brooklyn and the In-Season Tournament game at Dallas. Lue was already getting the Clippers to practice more, calling a session following Sunday’s 40-point win, the only day off in a four-day span.

Now, the Clippers have a good reason for more practices. They have a former MVP to integrate.

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(Photo: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)

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