Is James Harden the solution for Lakers’ sluggish offense? It’s way too early to tell

The Lakers and Clippers tend to have similar tastes in players. They both pursued Kawhi Leonard in free agency. The Clippers got him. They both pursued Paul George through trade at various times. He’s now a Clipper. The Lakers sniffed around current or former Clippers like Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris before they wound up in the opposite locker room. Russell Westbrook actually did play for the Lakers. Ty Lue almost became their coach before he joined Doc Rivers’ bench in 2019. Wind the clock back far enough and we can even acknowledge the Chris Paul debacle.

Over the past decade or so of NBA history, when the Lakers and Clippers have wanted the same player, that player has wound up in red and blue. But, right now, it’s the Clippers struggling to seal the deal. They’ve been chasing James Harden since June. The sticking point in negotiations right now is Terance Mann. The 76ers won’t back off, so the Clippers have stepped back. Until they put Mann on the table, there’s room for someone else to swoop in and swipe Harden right out from under their noses. Should that someone be the slow-starting Lakers?

It’s a complicated question, especially since the Lakers are still months away from being able to legally match salary thanks to all of the contracts they signed in July. They are likely as informed about Harden’s current state as any team outside of Philadelphia. Rob Pelinka was once his agent, after all. But if Pelinka was interested in Harden, he could have carved out the cap space to pursue him in July. Harden’s last reunion with an old friend hasn’t exactly gone well.

Things can change quickly in the NBA, though. The Laker offense fared far worse than expected in openers against Denver and Phoenix, ranking 21st in the league through two games. The Sacramento Kings offered a welcome reprieve in Game No. 3, but the Lakers won’t face many worse defenses in the near future, and they still couldn’t secure the victory. The core problems very much remain. The Lakers dominate in the LeBron James minutes and collectively vomit away the minutes that he sits. If James is playing fewer minutes this season, someone is going to have to pick up the slack.

The Lakers won’t have much patience for the whole Dr. D’Angelo and Mr. Russell act. They signed his contract specifically with tradability in mind. Austin Reaves is better-suited for a medium-usage, high-efficiency role than full-time point guard duties. The pair of them have struggled mightily to open the season, and the roster looks far shorter on collective shooting and athleticism than it initially appeared on paper.

Harden is a legendary offensive floor-raiser. Excluding the 2021-22 season in which he was traded, he hasn’t played for an offense that ranked lower than seventh since 2015. Legitimate as fears of decline might be, Philadelphia lineups featuring Harden and no Joel Embiid last season still ranked in the 73rd percentile offensively last season at 117.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Harden will be a high-end generator of regular-season offense until that beard turns grey. He rarely misses games, a critical trait for both the Lakers and Clippers, and James is a pretty good insurance policy against another one of Harden’s postseason disappearing acts.

Embiid won an MVP inhaling Harden’s pocket passes. Anthony Davis might be an even more dangerous pick-and-roll muse. He’ll settle for some of those little floaters and mid-range jumpers, but Harden has never worked with a wide receiver like Davis near the rim. Only Luka Doncic throws better lobs than Harden. Davis has the catch radius of Mr. Fantastic and can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Their alley-oop threat would open up plenty of slot cuts for James.

The Harden-James pairing is potentially just as lethal. These are the two most aggressive switch-hunters of their generation. The pair of them could hunt just about any subpar defender off of the floor. James is the most overqualified short-roll playmaker in NBA history, and he’s functioned very effectively as a steady screener for Kyrie Irving in the past.

Their offensive overlap isn’t much of a problem. The defensive side of the equation is trickier. Harden doesn’t do on-ball defense. James prefers to hide on the weak side, shout orders and preserve his energy for offense. Maybe he wouldn’t have to on Harden’s team, but asking a soon-to-be-39-year-old to do much more than play “help” defense on a night-to-night basis seems unrealistic. Jarred Vanderbilt is a viable answer for most high-usage ball-handlers. His offense crippled the Lakers in the playoffs. Is the foursome of James, Davis, Harden and Reaves enough to protect him?

Probably not. Such a unit maxes out ball-handling but is quietly lacking in shooting. Davis and James have well-known shortcomings on that front. Harden’s pull-up exploits are well-documented, but he’s never even averaged two catch-and-shoot attempts per game. He’s not going to move off of the ball, and Reaves is at his best in the mid-range. Those are shots he’d lose watching Harden dribble. He’s 3-of-12 from deep so far this season after shooting 31.7% as a rookie and 34.7% in college. It’s fair to wonder if last year’s 39.8% was the anomaly. He might make more sense as a reserve on a team with Harden and James, but the Lakers aren’t exactly overflowing with 3-and-D guards to pair with that dynamic duo.

The Lakers run plenty in transition, but they’re a deceptively slow half-court team. James wants to pound the rock. Reaves wants to pound the rock. Harden wants to pound the rock. James can still jet when he needs to, but he’s not blowing by top defenders anymore. Reaves and Harden are among the NBA’s best decelerators, and use that gift to draw plenty of annoying fouls. The Lakers already led the league in free throw attempts without Harden a year ago. Add him and they’ll live at the line. But they’ll play some of the simplest half-court offense in the NBA.

In a perfect world, the Lakers would probably prefer a speedster to contrast the more deliberate style James and Reaves play with. They had that guy in Westbrook, so they know he needs to be able to shoot. Some point-of-attack defense would be nice as well. Shooting-plus-speed-plus-defense is a rare combination, and not exactly a cheap one one on the trade market. The Lakers signed Gabe Vincent hoping he’d check all three boxes. He hasn’t through three games.

The cost here isn’t insignificant. Nothing happens before Dec. 15, when most of the players the Lakers signed last summer become trade-eligible. Given the roster size constraints that come with in-season trading, Rui Hachimura would be the early favorite to join Russell as matching salary. A heavy developmental loss for the Lakers, but not necessarily a critical one on the floor. His playoff shooting a year ago was always unsustainable, and his bully-ball offense would no longer be needed. His presence pushes the eligibility date back to Jan. 15.

The Lakers can match the one unprotected first-round pick the Clippers have put forth along with multiple swaps if need be. Is there a young player here that appeals to the 76ers as much as Mann does? Max Christie and Jalen Hood-Schifino are the best bets. Neither have proven a thing in the NBA, and Christie has the vague outline of the kind of 3-and-D skill set the Lakers would love to have on such a revamped roster.

At the very least we’d need a third team. The 76ers are trying to avoid long-term salary and chase 2024 free agents. Neither Russell nor Hachimura are on expiring contracts. The Lakers would have to find a big one to accommodate Philadelphia. The Hornets would probably listen on Gordon Hayward, provided they view Hachimura as a long-term project worth undertaking. Detroit has a smattering of expiring deals to work with as well between Joe Harris, Alec Burks, James Wiseman and Monte Morris. The Spurs loathe helping the Lakers, but they could accommodate with Doug McDermott, Cedi Osman and the partially-guaranteed 2024-25 salary of Devonte’ Graham. Any of those teams would ask for draft compensation to participate, though the Lakers don’t have much of it to spare.

Despite appearances, the Lakers are currently fairly well-positioned to rebuild after the James-Davis era if they so choose. They owe out two first-round picks at the moment: one to New Orleans that should come with James and Davis still playing at an All-Star level and another to Utah that is top-four protected and doesn’t roll over after 2027. If the Lakers want to tank in two years, they can do so. If they want to clear the decks and chase free agents, they can do that too.

Those possibilities fly out the window the moment you start throwing around unprotected picks and swaps for Harden. You’re locked into whatever likely brief championship window the 34-year-old Harden gives you. If the Lakers consider the odds of a championship with Harden high enough, they might go for it. An 18th title would finally push them ahead of the dreaded Boston Celtics, and they have James and Davis now. They’re not going to have a better chance than this for awhile.

But this was all true in June, and it bears mentioning again that Pelinka didn’t pursue Harden. He could have created the cap space to do so, sacrificing depth instead of picks to land his prize. He chose not to, and there are any number of viable explanations for why he didn’t.

He might have wanted to wait for a better target. One always pops up. The Bulls had an opening night player’s-only meeting. Something tells me DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine will be tradeable down the line. The eternal pursuit of Kyrie Irving is perpetually one controversy away from resurfacing.

It’s equally plausible that he just wanted to see how his team looked over a more sustained sample size before he blew it up again. He preached an emphasis on continuity in the offseason. He’s already seen James and Davis take an overhauled roster deep into the playoffs on a few months of notice, so there was no rush to make the wrong blockbuster. There’s no doubt that the Westbrook disaster would make any executive a bit gun-shy.

Whatever the reason, Pelinka chose not to pursue Harden over the summer, and his instinct was probably correct in that moment. That might change by January. The current roster has played only three games, after all. He’ll have a better idea of what this team needs when the deadline arrives.

Harden might ultimately wind up as the answer. But the Lakers don’t need him in quite the same way the Clippers do. For all of the recruiting battles the Clippers have won in recent years, the Lakers are the Los Angeles team with the recent ring. He’d be a luxury shot-creator on a team that already has the greatest of them all on their roster. Until the Lakers are sure their other needs are met, they can afford to be patient on the Harden front. And if he winds up a Clipper? Well, the Lakers will lose about as much sleep over that one as they did over those other recent misses, which is to say, not very much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *