James Harden begins Clippers tenure with parting shots at 76ers

James Harden’s Los Angeles Clippers tenure opened with a few parting shots for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Fresh off a four-month standoff with the 76ers that culminated in a blockbuster trade Tuesday, Harden wasted no time getting settled back into his hometown. After meeting his new teammates before the Clippers’ loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, Harden expressed excitement at the opportunity to play with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook during an introductory news conference Thursday.

“I’m very elite as an individual, and I can fit in with anybody and make a championship run work,” Harden said. “All of us are on the same page: The individual stats are past us, and we all have one goal. … They’re already a really good team. The coaching staff is really, really good as well. I think the comfort level of me being back home around family and having some really, really good players on this team — with all of that coming together, it just made sense.”

The 10-time all-star said he plans to practice Friday and hopes to debut when the Clippers visit the New York Knicks on Monday. Before he takes the court for his fourth team in four seasons, Harden shed some light on his messy exit from the 76ers, which saw him request a trade in June, sharply criticize 76ers President Daryl Morey in August, show up late to training camp and sit out the team’s first three games before the trade.

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All told, Harden played just 79 games for Philadelphia after arriving in a February 2022 trade from the Brooklyn Nets.

“Leaving a lot of money on the table from Brooklyn and going to Philly and, once again last summer, taking $26 million less to sign and make the team and organization better,” Harden said. “My ball dominance is really effective. Changing my role, trying to change the narrative and trying to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win at the highest level. … Taking less money [and] sacrificing my role, that’s not talked about. It just didn’t work out. Me leaving Brooklyn and thinking I’m going to retire a Sixer, the front office had other plans. They didn’t want me.”

Harden, who won three straight scoring titles from 2018 to 2020 with the Houston Rockets, averaged 21 points, 6.1 rebounds and a league-leading 10.7 assists per game for the 76ers last season. His scoring average was his lowest since 2011-12, his third season in the NBA when he was a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Meanwhile, 76ers center Joel Embiid won NBA MVP honors and won the scoring title with 33.1 points per game.

Philadelphia lost in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight season, leading to the firing of coach Doc Rivers. Harden said he was bothered by his lack of offensive freedom in Philadelphia and that he “never really had that opportunity” to “play my best” as a scorer and facilitator.

“If you want to be honest, [it felt like] being on a leash,” Harden said. “All that plays into where I am today. … I’m not a system player. I’m a system.”

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Harden, the 2018 MVP, is joining a star-studded Clippers roster: Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, George is an eight-time all-star, and Westbrook was the 2017 MVP. Los Angeles has needed a more experienced backcourt distributor in recent years, and Harden said his stint playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn was good preparation for his new role.

“I was in a similar situation in Brooklyn where you had two guys who can score the basketball and create mismatches,” Harden said. “I’m fine on the basketball, off the basketball, pick and roll, catching and shooting. We have a lot of really unselfish players. I can score the basketball, and I’m a very good passer as well. I can facilitate.”

As they try to mount their first deep playoff run since 2021, the Clippers concluded that they were willing to take a chance on Harden, even though he has forced his way off three teams in the past three years and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

The 34-year-old guard argued that injuries complicated his Brooklyn tenure and that “the business side” was “out of my control” in Philadelphia. Discussing his new team, he expressed hope that he can put the drama behind him.

“If you’re just talking about strictly basketball, then we definitely have an opportunity [to win],” Harden said. “Hopefully none of those things [you can’t control] happen and we can just focus on basketball and giving ourselves the best chance.”

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