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Reinvented, star-rich Clippers continue to search for answers

Checking in on the state of the Clippers after the first month with James Harden.

The Clippers have struggled to find a rhythm since bringing together Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019.

This will be a spectacular success or a fantastic failure.

This is where we are with James Harden’s arrival and the still-unfulfilled promise of a Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing. In their never-ending search for respect, the LA Clippers have reinvented themselves, once again, and so far, so questionable.

The addition of Harden, a polarizing player, caused public buzz ever since it happened a few weeks ago, nearly all of it gloomy. This happens when you drop five straight right after the trade, invite potential chemistry issues … then lose a game like last Monday’s.

They collapsed at home on Monday against a Nuggets team without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon. In that game, ex-Clippers stars Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan combined for 56 points … while  George mustered two baskets in 37 minutes.

And in the final seconds, the ball still in play, Russell Westbrook approached a courtside fan who, according to Westbrook, said something rude.

Was that the season’s low point? If not — and remember, we’re just about to start December — what are we to make of this whole bold experiment?

This team has a pair of former Kia MVP winners, a two-time Finals MVP winner and an MVP finalist. They’re built to win. Yet as the Clippers prepare to meet the Warriors in a Thursday game (10 ET, TNT) of Teams With Issues, an early inspection is in order.

Harden over Westbrook, for starters

The initial plan was a starting backcourt pairing of Harden and Westbrook — legendary guards who were former teammates at two other stops — to form a formidable combo of passing and scoring. Except it fizzled fast.

Almost everyone on the outside knew of the one glaring problem: Neither played heavy off-the-ball minutes in their professional lives.

Career-wise, Harden scores more off the dribble than he does in catch-and-shoot situations. Meanwhile, shooting was never a strength of Westbrook, so without the ball and left standing on the perimeter, he’s mostly helpless.

After six games the decision was made — by Westbrook or by coach Ty Lue or both — to bring Westbrook off the bench.

But is that really the best plan?

Westbrook meshed well with the starting unit before Harden arrived. The Clippers finished 11-5 down the stretch last season with Westbrook. In a first-round playoff loss to the Suns, without George and all but the first game without Leonard, Westbrook was LA’s best player.

And the Clippers were winning with Westbrook as a starter this season before the Harden trade.

Here’s why: Westbrook had the ball and was a facilitator. He was often careless, sure, but such is the case with most heavy-usage players.

Harden has been pass-heavy, too, with the starters since Westbrook moved to the bench. This really isn’t about Harden meshing with the starters. It’s Westbrook meshing with the reserves.

Westbrook can’t be a typical sixth man who comes off the bench firing because of shooting issues. But Harden could sparkle in that role. He’d have the green light with the second unit and could average 20-25 points and make those players better with his passing.

But there’s no chance Harden would volunteer to come off the bench because, well, he’s James Harden.

Besides, starter vs. bench is really an ego thing. Here’s what’s more important: Who’s on the floor in the fourth quarter?

Your turn … no, my turn

The good news is the Clippers are blessed with four creative players off the dribble.

The bad news is the Clippers are blessed with four creative players off the dribble.

In this situation, the team is isolation-heavy. Meaning, the floor tends to be spread while someone dribbles and dribbles and takes his defender one-on-one. The Clippers rank No. 2 in total isolation possessions this season (they were sixth last season).

Chances are good that Leonard, George, Harden and even Westbrook win that contest more often than not. They’re that good, though not as viciously good as 4-5 years ago.

But how many times is an actual play called? As in, players cut and move, the ball is passed 3-4 times, then shot? This doesn’t seem to be the case with these Clippers, who take turns going iso.

This is because there was no training camp with Harden in the mix. Everything the Clippers are doing is off the fly, it appears anyway. Learn as they go.

It doesn’t help that teams, Clippers included, rarely hold practice once the season begins. Too many games, travel, and potential risk of injury.

Speaking of that …

All good on the health front

Leonard and George haven’t missed a game, playing in each of the team’s 17 games so far. This is the best scenario, by far, for a franchise that before now couldn’t keep both of them on the floor.

But despite this, the Clippers still have a losing record this season.

That’s the biggest letdown. The Leonard-George combo was designed to endure any and all weaknesses and setbacks and minor problems. They were and are the security blanket, the two players who solve challenges.

The losing record is partly due to them, not just Westbrook and Harden. George has been wildly inconsistent at times, evident by his disappearance against the Nuggets right after he combined for 59 points in back-to-back wins against the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans.

Leonard has been solid enough, but when times are tough, he has never been a vocal locker-room leader. That’s not his DNA.

After four seasons of coming up short with these two, mainly because of injuries, the Clippers need them healthy and productive. So far, they’ve been more healthy than productive (but, it’s early).

What about the future?

This question should be reserved for next summer. But there’s too much at stake to ignore it.

To get George from Oklahoma City (and by extension, Leonard, who only wanted to sign with the Clippers if they got George), the price was (and still is) steep:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, five first-round picks, two first-round swaps, plus rich extensions for George and Leonard.

They sold their future for these two stars — both of whom could opt out this summer (although that would be a surprise). Additionally, Harden’s deal is up this summer, while Westbrook has one season after this one. In a very unlikely scenario, the Clippers could be without three of those four as they prepare to move into the new Intuit Dome in Inglewood next season.

But wait …

The Clippers could go deep into the postseason, maybe even advance to the NBA Finals, maybe even win a title.

That sounds pretty rich for a team that, as of now, is out of the playoff picture. Yet there’s a lot of undeniable talent here.

In addition to their four future Hall of Famers, the Clippers have a great utility man in Norman Powell, a functional (if clumsy) center in Ivica Zubac and a good young scorer in Terance Mann.

Plus, Lue is a championship-proven coach.

A segment of the basketball world might be laughing at their expense now. But, to paraphrase Harden, if and when the Clippers finally figure it out, watch out.

It can happen.

Stranger things have.

Such is the life of the Clippers. There are no banners other than the purple and gold ones hanging inside Arena, and the only question is whether one will hang in the rafters of the Intuit Dome next season.

Or the next.

Or at some point.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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