A James Harden-Clippers mystery, hope in Philly, crumbling Cavs and more NBA pre-playoff takeaways

Are the LA Clippers unofficially out as title contenders?

That question might not seem fair to ask this early, what with seven games left in their regular season and the home-court edge they hold (for now) in the first round of the playoffs by nature of their fourth-place standing in the Western Conference. They just went 3-1 on a road trip too. And with the Denver Nuggets up next on Thursday night in Los Angeles, maybe they’ll push back against this unpleasant premise by taking down the defending champs and thus calling this entire column into question.

Stranger things have happened — like their creepy mascot, Chuck the Condor.

But when you study the Clippers’ body of work in the past two months, and take a closer look at James Harden’s subpar play in particular, you start to see why the scrutiny is so well deserved. This part, at least for now, is indisputable: This was not the super team they had in mind when the former MVP and 10-time All-Star finally pushed his way out of Philly to come their way in late October.

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Since Feb. 7 this Clippers team that was dominant from mid-November to early February has gone 13-13 while posting a net rating of minus-2.1 that is 19th in the league. Their offensive rating is 12th in that span, and their defensive rating is — wait for it — 28th.


Injuries have played a part, to be sure, but Harden has played in 24 of those 26 games while Kawhi Leonard (who as of Thursday morning was listed as out against the Nuggets with right knee soreness) and Paul George have both played in 23. Russell Westbrook, who missed 12 games with a fractured left hand during that stretch, has been back since March 25.

During that same stretch from Feb. 7 on, Harden is averaging 15.5 points while shooting just 40.4 percent overall and 33.7 from 3-point range (on 6.9 attempts per game).

Double yikes.

The playmaking that is his primary role on this team has been there (a team-leading 8.5 assists per game), as is his rebounding (5.3 per), but it’s still quite surreal to see the three-time scoring champ struggle like this when it comes to getting buckets. This is still James Harden, after all, and these numbers don’t compute no matter how drastically the context around him has changed.

Especially in the past two games.

He had just six points in a win against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday, when he was 1-of-3 from the field. Two days later in Sacramento, with Leonard out and the need for the Harden of old to re-emerge quite glaring, he had another six-point outing in a blowout loss (1-of-7 shooting). It was a historic set of games in the Harden annals, for all the wrong reasons.

Before this Clippers season, single-digit scoring games for Harden were almost as unimaginable as the notion of a razor on his famous face. Per Stathead.com, he went five full regular seasons without one from 2015 to 2020 while in Houston and had four combined in the past three seasons while in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. He has had 10 this season.

The midseason change in officiating has made matters even worse for Harden, too, as his masterful (and controversial) art of drawing fouls is the very kind of thing the league is legislating out of the game in a clear attempt to curb all the rampant scoring. In his last 12 games, for example, he is averaging just 2.9 free throws per game (he has averaged 8.3 for his career).

A significant drop in offense was expected, but not like this. And if the Clippers commentary after the loss to the Kings was any indication, they aren’t quite sure what to do about it.

“It’s the way they played him,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of the Kings. “I mean, they blitzed him all night, so (in) the pick-and-roll he couldn’t really get his shots off. Maybe I could do a little bit more iso (isolation) for him to try to loosen him up, but they showed they wouldn’t let him play. So in pick-and-rolls … we know they’re going to blitz (Paul George), Kawhi and James — that’s what we work on every single day, executing the blitz coverages offensively. We need to do a better job. I thought PG did a good job of getting off of it, throwing it to the screener and making a playoff off of it. But with James, they just wouldn’t let him play.”

The days of Houston Harden are long gone, to be sure, but this notion of him struggling to solve these kinds of defensive puzzles is still foreign for anyone who watched him cook for all those years with the Rockets. He doesn’t need to be that guy with this Clippers crew, but they can’t afford for him to be a total non-factor as a scorer either.

When George was asked afterward what the Clippers might need to do to help Harden get out of his scoring rut, he threw the ball back to Lue and his staff.

“I’m not a coach,” George said while shaking his head. “I’m not the coach. Next question.”

Fair enough, PG, so here’s another one for you: If these Clippers keep barreling down this not-so-promising road, what does all of this mean for the crucial offseason to come?

Leonard is on board for the long term, having signed his extension in mid-January that runs through the 2026-27 season. The lack of an extension for George is becoming a bigger story by the month, as he can opt out this summer and would be met by a robust market if he chose to become a free agent (there’s a star-player job opening in Philly, by the way). Harden, who left the Sixers in large part because of his belief that he deserved a max deal, will be a free agent. That’s the big-picture backdrop for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, whose new Intuit Dome Arena opens in Inglewood, Calif., next season as well.

In the here and now, these Clippers will keep trying to figure it out. Lue already pulled the motivational card, calling the Clippers “soft” and challenging them to be “tougher mentally and physically” after a March 25 loss to the Indiana Pacers. So, I asked George, have they improved in those areas of concern since then?

“I’m not sure,” he said. “That’s a question you’ve gotta ask T-Lue (about) where he thinks we are at this point.”

But did Lue’s media message make an impact in the locker room?

“No, I think it was kind of something that we needed to address internally amongst us in this locker room anyways, that we needed to play a little harder and establish a toughness,” George continued. “I think we felt it before it needed to be addressed.”

Beat the Nuggets, though, and it could spark the kind of momentum that helps them turn this high-stakes season back in the right direction. This team that went 31-8 from Nov. 17 to Feb. 5, when they had the league’s third-best net rating while boasting the league’s top offense and 11th-best defense, could still re-emerge.

Finding a way to reinvigorate Harden’s offense would certainly help.

“These are the (games) that you look forward to most, especially with playoffs around the corner,” George said of the Nuggets game. “A matchup like this, (against) a really good team, (and) you get a chance, again, to measure where we’re at going into the playoffs. … Yeah, it will definitely be one that we should be up for. It’s a game where I think we need to establish who we are.”


Why Philly has hope again

First things first: Here’s to Joel Embiid being healthy and happy again.

As he shared after his return from a two-month absence from a left knee injury on Tuesday, when he had 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, there was a bigger-than-basketball element to his latest recovery. At 30 years old, and with serious injuries having hindered his career so much already, Embiid admitted that this time around was different in the worst kind of ways.

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Joel Embiid works against Oklahoma City forward Jaylin Williams on Tuesday in Philadelphia. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

“This one, it took a toll mentally; being depressed,” he told reporters. “It was not a good one. I’m still not where I’m supposed to be, especially mentally. But I just love to play.

“For some reason, this injury was just disappointing. It was depressing. Yeah, I mean, it took me a while to get over it, and I still haven’t gotten over it. I’ve just got to take it day by day, look at the positive. I’m back, so hopefully every single day trying to get better and get back to myself. It’s gonna take me a while to get back to myself, and really trust myself.”

Now, of less import, for the basketball meaning of it all…

The damage to the Sixers’ season is done. They went 11-18 without Embiid during those two brutal months, dropping from fifth in the East to eighth while posting the league’s 22nd-best net rating along the way. With him, they were 29-17 with the league’s third-best net rating. Newsflash: The reigning MVP is pretty special when he’s on the floor.

But much like Embiid’s left knee, which suffered a meniscus injury  on Jan. 30 against Golden State amid such uncomfortable and unnecessary circumstances, it can be fixed. And make no mistake, his recent return makes these Sixers the most interesting team in the East when the postseason arrives.

As it stands, Philadelphia would face Indiana in a 7-8 Play-In Tournament game with a chance to move on to the first round with a win. The Pacers won two of their three matchups this season, with Embiid playing in all three, but Indiana isn’t the same squad  it was back then (20-19 since Jan. 14). So let’s assume for the sake of this exercise that the Sixers win that game.

Barring a change in the No. 2 spot, where Milwaukee has a 1 1/2-game lead over the plummeting Cleveland Cavaliers, we’re looking at an early playoff matchup for the ages if it’s Embiid and his Sixers against their old coach, Doc Rivers, and the wayward Bucks team that he took over in late January. Oh yeah, there’s that Giannis Antetokounmpo guy to battle Embiid and some dude named Damian Lillard to go tit-for-tat with Tyrese Maxey too. Pass the popcorn…

Truth be told, this part of the East landscape is shaping up to be can’t-miss no matter who wins that hypothetical Play-In game. If it’s the Pacers vs. Bucks, then it’s (another) grudge match between the two teams that got so testy with each other during the In-Season Tournament in early December and then had the unforgettable Gameball Gate a week later that took the tension to a whole new level. Yes, please.

The Bucks, if you haven’t noticed, look quite ripe for an upset these days after giving Washington its 15th win in 76 tries on Tuesday and Memphis its 26th win in 76 tries a day later. Milwaukee, which has lost four of its last five, is  being saved only by the fact that Cleveland has been equally awful of late.

Speaking of which…

The crumbling Cavs

Since we’re chronicling the struggles of would-be contenders who have fallen well short of expectations, let’s look a little deeper at this Cavs’ slide.

On Feb. 10, Cleveland was 35-16 and second in the East. Since then, with injuries to Donovan Mitchell (left knee) and Evan Mobley (left ankle) playing a pivotal part, the Cavs have gone 11-15 while posting the league’s 22nd-best net rating (21st in offense; 24th in defense). Somehow, they’re still in third (half game up on the Orlando Magic; one game ahead of the New York Knicks).

Mitchell missed most of that stretch (16 games), but he hasn’t played all that well when he was available. In those 10 games, he’s averaging 20.3 points (39.8 percent shooting overall), 5.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds. Getting blasted by the Suns at full strength on Wednesday (122-101), with the Cavs trailing by as much as 28 points in the first half, was the latest evidence that they’re not in a good place.

If you somehow haven’t heard, Mitchell can be a free agent in the summer of 2025. What happens in these playoffs will have everything to do with what comes next regarding his future in Cleveland.

More postseason musings

• Minnesota’s Naz Reid signing from last summer — three years, $42 million — might have saved the Timberwolves’ season.

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Naz Reid backs down Detroit’s Cade Cunningham. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

Remember when so many critics wondered why president of basketball operations Tim Connelly kept investing in bigs, with Reid’s retention coming after the Rudy Gobert trade in July 2022 that put him in the frontcourt with Karl-Anthony Towns? Much like the Gobert deal, it looks like a master stroke now (albeit a very pricey one, given the well-chronicled luxury tax ramifications).

Since Towns went down with a torn meniscus on March 4, the 24-year-old Reid has averaged 18.8 points (42.7 percent from 3 on 7.4 attempts per), 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 blocks, one steal and 29.5 minutes per game. Before Towns went down, the undrafted fan favorite was averaging 12.3 points (41 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts per) 4.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 blocks, 0.7 steals and 23 minutes. The Wolves, who just keep winning no matter how wild their ownership situation might have turned, have gone 10-4 while posting the league’s fourth-best net rating and maintaining the top spot in the West (they’re tied with Denver at the moment).

Anyone who peruses the comments section of our stories knows Reid has a cult following, and that was before he put together the best stretch of his young career at the perfect time and gave Anthony Edwards the (replacement) co-star he so desperately needed on the offensive end. The great news for Minnesota, even beyond Reid’s well-timed excellence, is that Towns could return before the end of the regular season.

• The Pelicans picked a terrible time to fall apart, as they’ve lost four of their last five and fallen back into Play-In position. Their recent losses have all been against tough teams (Oklahoma City, Boston, Phoenix and Orlando), but the Suns (who have the tiebreaker over New Orleans) have played their way into sixth.

• The Kings, meanwhile, start a tough four-game road trip on Thursday (at New York, Boston, Brooklyn and Oklahoma City) that could make or break their playoff/Play-In prospects. As our Hunter Patterson wrote on Wednesday, they’ll need Keegan Murray to keep this level of offensive energy if they’re going to survive the recent losses of Kevin Huerter (labrum tear) and Malik Monk (MCL sprain). They are a half game behind New Orleans (which has the tiebreaker) and Phoenix (tiebreaker undetermined) at present, with back-to-back home games to come against the Pelicans (April 11) and Suns (April 12) soon thereafter. That coveted sixth spot will likely come down to the wire.

• The Celtics’ dominance has long since reached a point of absurdity, but it’s worth highlighting nonetheless. Not only do they enter Thursday’s games with a seven-game lead on the rest of the league, with a win over Oklahoma City (without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) making them 60-16 and securing the league’s best record with six games to go, but they have a net rating of 12 that is nearly double that of second-place Minnesota (seven). They have the league’s best offensive rating by a massive margin (122.6 points scored per 100 possessions, with Indiana second at 120) and the league’s third-best defensive rating (110.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, with Minnesota and Orlando the top two).

They’re just … awesome.

But the only downside of it all, as you might have guessed, is that this level of play comes with a title-or-bust expectation that will be there from now until the end. When it comes to the gap between this Boston team and the rest of the field, consider this historical context: Even the dynasty Warriors never had this sort of space between their team and the next-best contender.

When they broke the league record for wins in 2015-16 (73-9), San Antonio was only six games behind. Golden State’s biggest regular-season gap during the stretch of five consecutive NBA Finals appearances (and three titles) from 2015 to 2019 actually came in their first showing, when they had a seven-game lead on Atlanta in 2014-15. In the last decade, the 2021-22 Suns had the largest lead on the second-place team (eight games ahead of Memphis) before falling to Dallas in the West semifinals in seven games.

It will be interesting to see how second-year coach Joe Mazzulla handles these final 11 days of the regular season, but it would be wise to throttle down before the playoffs arrive. The Celtics have five home games left, with a road game at Milwaukee on April 9 in between, before their all-or-nothing test arrives.

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(Top photo of James Harden: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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