James Harden is helping Clippers reach championship potential with these surprising changes to his game

The James Harden trade didn’t get off to a promising start for the Clippers, but that feels like an eternity ago.

After losing six straight games following the trade, Los Angeles has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, winning 13 of its last 16, including eight straight. This stretch has seen the Clippers go from 13th in the Western Conference standings to fifth.

While Kawhi Leonard, who is quietly looking like a superstar again, has been the driving force in LA’s recent success, Harden has also been doing his thing. He’s been good for 18.0 points and 8.4 assists per game on 48.4 percent shooting since head coach Tyronn Lue said he was “doing too much to try to fit in.”

Has something in particular sparked this version of Harden? Let’s take a closer look.

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How James Harden is helping Clippers reach championship potential

Harden has long been one of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA. The ball didn’t stick nearly as much in his hands in Philadelphia as in his peak days in Houston, but his usage rate — an estimate of plays used by a player when they’re on the court — has plummeted to 19.3 percent with the Clippers, the lowest mark of his career.

The big change fueling that number: Harden is generating more of his offense off-ball.

You have to go back to Harden’s early Rockets days to find the last time he wasn’t generating almost all of his own offense. He’s still not much of a cutter, but he is spotting up much more this season than he did last season.

According to NBA.com, Harden is up to 2.4 catch-and-shoot 3s per game with the Clippers. That still pales in comparison to the likes of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Paul George, but it’s the most he has averaged since 2015-16. He’s been very good at it as well, knocking down a sizzling 43.1 percent of those opportunities.

Harden was turning down good looks when he first joined the Clippers. Since then, he’s become more willing to let it fly, which has eased his fit next to Leonard and George.

That’s not to say Harden is now an off-ball player, because he’s most certainly not.

There still aren’t many players in the league who score in isolation at the frequency Harden does. It’s Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and then him. He runs more pick-and-rolls than anyone else on the Clippers, too. The difference is he’s not relying quite as much on one-on-one scoring as he did with the 76ers and he’s leaning more on pick-and-rolls.

Here’s how Harden is generating his scoring this season versus last season:

Letting Harden run pick-and-rolls at the expense of more touches for Leonard and George isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Harden continues to be one of the better pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA, and he’s an elite passer in those situations. He’s always thrived with a rim-running center, so it’s no surprise that he and Ivica Zubac have been carving teams up lately.

Those two are quickly developing some really nice chemistry.

George has always been a high-volume 3-point shooter, but Leonard upping his 3-point attempts has given Harden and Zubac someone else they can kick the ball out to when teams collapse on their pick-and-rolls.

A fun stat for a fun guy: Leonard has connected on 49.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s so far this season. He’s been automatic.

Oh, and by the way: Harden’s isolations tend to get a bad rap these days, but he’s still elite at it. He’s averaging an absurd 1.49 points per isolation possession in a Clippers uniform, which ranks in the 98th percentile in efficiency. He ran circles around the Pacers on Monday night, scoring a season-best 26 points on 13 isolation possessions.

This is, of course, still very much the honeymoon phase for Harden. He was playing at an All-Star level last season, but former 76ers head coach Doc Rivers noticed an almost immediate change when he wasn’t named an All-Star.

“We were the best team in the NBA for a 10-20 game stretch. Obviously, we have Joel [Embiid], Tyrese [Maxey] and Tobias [Harris], but we were because James was being a point guard,” Rivers said.” It’s funny — a coach called me and said, ‘I never thought anyone could get him to do that.’ And he did for a short term.

“If you can keep him in that and not want to chase numbers or the thirst of scoring, then you have a terrific player.”

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The key for Harden will be sustaining this style of play for the rest of this regular season and, most importantly, in the playoffs. There won’t be as much of a spotlight on Harden as long as Leonard and George are healthy, but he can’t be as up-and-down as he has in the past if the Clippers are going to win it all.

For now, Harden deserves credit for the changes he’s made to his game over the last month and change. It’s helped him find his stride and it’s getting the most out of a Clippers team that needs their stars on the same page to reach their full potential.

Source : ESPN.com

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