WASHINGTON — After another dominant LA Clippers win, this time a 125-109 victory over the Wizards on Wednesday, point guard James Harden was the last player to leave the locker room. He had just completed another month in which he played in every game, and after amassing 25 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and five 3s, he was asked about Thursday’s All-Star reserves announcement.
Harden was an All-Star snub last year, even as he was leading the league in assists. It marked the first time in 11 seasons that he missed the midseason showcase. On his Instagram Stories, he simply wrote, “The disrespect.”
“I’ve got bigger goals,” Harden said. “None of that — scoring titles and assists and All-Stars and MVPs — right now. I’ve done it all. I’m here for one reason. And I think everybody knows what the reason is.”
Asked James Harden about All-Star reserve announcement tomorrow. He was a snub last year when he was leading the NBA in assists and wasn’t happy about it
This year? He is more focused on the bigger goal in mind. If it happens, cool. If not, on to the next pic.twitter.com/Lhm8nye01N
— Law Murray 🧽 (@LawMurrayTheNU) February 1, 2024
The Clippers won an NBA-best 23 games in December and January. Harden hasn’t missed a game since his debut on Nov. 6. Kawhi Leonard, likely to return to the All-Star Game for the first time in three years, played every game in January. Paul George missed only his third game of the season Wednesday, this one due to a sore groin.
Rarely have the Clippers reached the All-Star break as serious a contender for the NBA title as this season. The last time they won more than 10 games in back-to-back months was 2015-16, a campaign marred by franchise player Blake Griffin breaking his hand punching an assistant equipment manager. The last time they won 23 games in a two-month span was in 2012-13.
The key to this team is that its star players have found their roles and have been on the court to fulfill them. Even the Clippers role players are thriving. Russell Westbrook, who began the season as a starter, has yet to miss a game while filling in a variety of needs. He has been everything from a change-of-pace facilitator to the center in small lineups.
Even the Clippers role players are thriving. Russell Westbrook, who began the season has yet to miss a game while filling in a variety of needs. He began the season as a starter, then went to the bench and has been everything from a change-of-pace facilitator to the center in small lineups.
“Taking one at a time, chipping away,” Westbrook said when asked about the team getting better from December to January. “That’s the biggest improvement just from us early on. We’re locking in game-by-game.”
Starting shooting guard Terance Mann struggled with his shot through December, but his percentages in January resembled an untouchable player: 56.7 percent field goals, 47.7 percent 3s, 78.6 percent free throws. Backup forward Amir Coffey was even more impressive in January: 65.1 percent field goals, 51.9 percent 3s, 80 percent free throws while playing his most minutes in a month (290) since March 2022. NBA Sixth-Man-of-the-Year candidate Norman Powell made 47.4 percent of his 3s in January and wants to be in the 3-point shootout during All-Star weekend in Indiana.
167 players have attempted 100+ 3s this season
The only players with a higher 3% than Norman Powell’s 45.9% are Malik Beasley, Kevin Durant, Grayson Allen.
Norm wants in on the 3-point shootout next month in Indiana — and 6Man too: pic.twitter.com/qNuLefCDgg
— Law Murray 🧽 (@LawMurrayTheNU) January 11, 2024
The Clippers were the NBA’s most efficient offense in January. And unlike December, when they were only 17th in defensive efficiency, they have paired their high-powered offense with a 10th-ranked defense despite the loss of center Ivica Zubac to a right calf strain midway through the month. Daniel Theis has played at least 17 minutes in each game Zubac has missed and Mason Plumlee is contributing after missing eight weeks due to a sprained MCL.
With the trade deadline a week away, is there a move the Clippers can make to fortify this squad? President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank explained recently that the Clippers already made their necessary trade when Harden was acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers. Still, there are candidates for the Clippers to explore the trade value of on the roster.
Let’s start with forward PJ Tucker, who the Clippers believe can still contribute to a team, depending on who he shares the floor with. Tucker has had a positive presence since losing his rotation spot in late November. He is always talking in the locker room, especially with Harden and Westbrook.
But Tucker is balancing being a professional “while trying to get in a better situation for me, personally,” he told The Athletic. “It kind of is what it is at this point.”
Tucker has a player option worth more than $11.5 million for the 2024-25 season. Players don’t sign contracts just to give away player options like that, and Tucker would be turning 40 at the end of the 2025 season. It is unlikely that he would seek a buyout just to change teams.
“That all depends on the situation, timing, where,” Tucker said about forgoing his player option. “It’s a lot of things that plays into that. I worked hard to be able to get myself in that position. The contract I got, the timing I got it, and all that … it means a lot and something I don’t take for granted. It’s definitely going to take a lot of thought and it’s going to take a real, real opportunity for me to have to go against that.”
If Tucker remains a Clipper past next week’s trade deadline, then it is easy to see him fulfill his role in terms of keeping up the camaraderie with the team. But there have not been meaningful discussions with the coaching staff about Tucker’s future role with an eye towards the postseason.
“That’s something that I think would happen more down the line,” Tucker told The Athletic. “We’ll see what happens these next two weeks, going into Feb. 8. And I’ll just have to figure it out from there.”
Tucker isn’t the only player who had a role with the Clippers only to be phased out in November. Bones Hyland began the season as the backup point guard to Westbrook, and he continued to have a rotation spot while Westbrook and Harden started together.
But once Westbrook became the second unit point guard, Hyland’s pathway to minutes evaporated completely. The durability of Harden, Westbrook and Powell has kept Hyland from reaching 12 minutes in a game since Nov. 10. Despite Hyland’s role changing, he has been in a better place this season with the Clippers than he was last year with the Denver Nuggets, maintaining his connection to his teammates and coaching staff.
Another interesting development occurred in Washington on Wednesday when Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue notified third-year wing Brandon Boston Jr. that he would be in the rotation with George out. Boston Jr. contributed 12 points, a steal, and a block in 27:09, the most playing time he has ever had in a game that Leonard also played in. Boston Jr. was sure to separate the garbage time stints that have not looked impressive this month with this new opportunity to play “real minutes” for the first time all month.
“You know me, I’m always ready,” Boston Jr. told The Athletic. “Always locked and loaded.”
Brandon Boston Jr postgame pic.twitter.com/FAXk6dq3NA
— Law Murray 🧽 (@LawMurrayTheNU) February 1, 2024
Expect the Clippers to do their due diligence to gauge Hyland and Boston Jr.’s value, but it is unlikely that either would be worth giving up on to add someone to what appears to be an already established rotation. Hyland, a second team All-Rookie selection in 2022, is a more known commodity than Boston Jr. If the Clippers are playing Boston Jr. to showcase him, then this becomes an interesting set of games for the 22-year-old the Clippers wanted to find minutes for going back to summer league and training camp.
There will be more answers in a week about the roster the Clippers could take into the spring. But for now, this appears to be a strong, deep team, focused on maintaining that championship mindset.
“It’s about us,” Harden said Wednesday night. “We can be really, really good. And the chemistry and the communication aspect is the most important thing.”
(Photo: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports)