There are volumes that could be written about what’s wrong with the Los Angeles Clippers superteam. After all the ruckus James Harden started this summer, if you thought he’d arrive in tip-top shape, ready to make one last push at a title with the Clippers, then you’re as gullible as every other team that has traded for him this decade. Harden still hasn’t shown why he thought he was so deserving of the massive extension he was demanding from Daryl Morey.
As the Clippers lead guard, his usage rate has hit career-lows thus far in Clipperland, and he’s averaging a meager 4.5 assists per game in a reduced role. The footwork isn’t as quick as it used to be, but the jerkiness is still there. But he’s still a black hole who bogs down the offense. However, a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night is a reminder of how untrustworthy Harden can be on the floor.
Trailing the 2-8 Memphis Grizzlies, 101-98, Kawhi Leonard hurried the ball up court in transition with 40 seconds remaining, drove the lane and lobbed a pass to Harden in the right short corner.The home crowd held its breath during Harden’s release and audibly exhaled in disappointment when Harden airballed the shot. 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 portended grim endings.There are worse players than Harden in those heart-palpitating moments, but few heliocentric superstars inspire as much disappointment as Harden has over the years. In the final five minutes of games where the score is within five points or less, which Second Spectrum considers clutch time, Harden is a vibe killer. If he can’t contort his way to the line, he musters half-hearted heaves that crack the rim and generally leaves you wanting. This isn’t a narrative that creeped up because of his poor reputation. The numbers back it up. Even during his MVP season, Harden was a mess in those crucial 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 closely contested 2017 race. In clutch time, Harden logged the second-worst field goal percentage in the league of all qualified scorers who’d 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 an assortment of game-winning baskets, shot 44.6 percent from the field and drained 33 percent of his attempts behind the arc.
Since that 2017 campaign, Harden hasn’t done much to counter his transformation into Mr. Self Check in close contests. The last time Philly saw him in a pressure situation, he cranked out just nine points in a Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. Here’s how he stacks up to many of his All-NBA peers in the regular season since 2017 according to Deadspin’s Stats & Info Dept. (aka Microsoft Excel and Second Spectrum).
FG% in clutch time (since 2017)
James Harden – .372 FG%
Damian Lillard- .391
Steph Curry- .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’s come a long way from missing a free throw in Game 6 that would have rendered Ray Allen’s series-extending 3-pointer moot.
And at least Kyrie Irving is worth the headache when he’s on the floor in pivotal 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’s arguably the best ice-in-his-veins scorer in the league. However, when the going gets tough, Harden can’t get going. His .372 clutch time field goal percentage since 2017 is the worst among his peers by a considerable margin.
Tyronn Lue has a bevy of options beyond his newest acquisition. Harden will never turn down a shot, but he shouldn’t be their first, second or third option. Don’t believe the noise about Paul George. He’s all effort and delivers solid results when it’s time for superstars to step up. Surprisingly, Westbrook is even a superior scorer to 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, but the Clippers are getting first-hand experience on why The Beard was available on the trade block for flea market prices. He doesn’t just run from title chases, he tends to shrink in the moments that define the legends.
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