James Harden had a fairly successful 2022-23 season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He led the NBA in assists and earned several votes for All-NBA honors at the end of the season on the way to both earning the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and helping Joel Embiid win his first MVP award. However, he also averaged his fewest points per game (21) and posted his lowest usage rate (25%) since becoming a full-time starter during the 2012-13 season.
Apparently, this shift in role bothered Harden. After spending most of the offseason angling for a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden got his wish on Tuesday, and during his introductory press conference Thursday, he compared his role in Philadelphia to “being on a leash.”
“Philly is just changing my role knowing I can give more, knowing I can do more, but if you want me to be honest, it’s like being on a leash,” Harden said. “Like me knowing, in order for us to get where we want to get to, I was gonna have to be playing my best offensively, whether it’s facilitating and scoring the basketball, and Joel as well. I never really had that opportunity as well.”
As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted, Harden ranked second in the NBA in time possessing the basketball last season behind only Luka Doncic. He was given plenty of opportunity in Philadelphia. However, even that was not enough for him. “Someone that trusts me believes in me, I’m not a system player, I am a system,” Harden said. At one point in his career, this was true. In 2019, Harden became just the second player in NBA history to post a usage rate above 40%.
However, he’s joining the all-time single-season record holder for usage rate in Russell Westbrook, his former teammate who posted a 41.3% usage rate during the 2016-17 season. Both of them will have to defer, to some extent, to former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who is the team’s best player, as well as eight-time All-Star Paul George. If touches were hard to come by in Philadelphia, they’re going to be even rarer on the Clippers. That’s notable here because his former coach, Doc Rivers, speculated that Harden’s willingness to play team basketball relied on a certain level of external validation.
“When playing right, I tell everyone to go back to the first half of last year where he gave himself to the team,” Rivers said on the Bill Simmons Podcast (h/t Justin Grasso of Sports Illustrated). “We were the best team in the NBA for a 10-20 game stretch, and obviously we have Joel, Tyrese, and Tobias, but we were because James was being a point guard. It’s funny; a coach called me and said, ‘I never thought anyone could get him to do that.’ And he did! For a short term. If you could keep him in that and not want to chase numbers — the thirst of scoring — then you have a terrific player.”
“He really was [playing perfectly]. I would say not making the All-Star team really bothered him,” Rivers added. “The coaches just didn’t put him on. He was only leading the league in assists. He was having the best 3-point percentage shooting year of his career. He was averaging plus-twenty, and the coaches didn’t put him on the All-Star team. He would never say this, but in my gut, I thought it changed almost immediately.”
Integrating a high-usage ball-handler onto a team with several other big-name players is never easy. Doing so requires significant sacrifice by all parties involved. If Harden expects to fully control the Clipper offense, it’s probably going to be a bumpy ride in Los Angeles.