Editors’ note: This story was updated after sources confirmed to ESPN about Russell Westbrook’s role off the bench on Friday.
ON WHAT OTHERWISE would be a day off following a weeklong road trip, Ty Lue gathered his team Saturday to watch a debacle at the LA Clippers practice facility.
The night before in Dallas, the Clippers had unraveled after a promising start, falling to the Mavericks 144-126.
The loss dropped the Clippers to 0-3 since acquiring James Harden from the Philadelphia 76ers on Halloween morning. After the rout, Clippers star forward Paul George said he tried to change his approach and adopt a “glue guy” mentality to help the struggling Clippers get rebounds and stops.
The result was George, who scored eight points on 3-of-12 shooting against the Mavs, looking passive on offense. The coach had seen enough film before firing back some words of encouragement to his two-way star.
“You’re not a glue guy!” Lue told George, in front of the team. “You’re a f—ing bad motherf—er!”
The beginnings of the Clippers’ Harden experiment have produced more questions and frustrations than highlight reels and wins. George has alternated between aggressive All-Star scorer to trying to be a playmaking connector who does the dirty work. Kawhi Leonard has struggled offensively in recent fourth quarters. Russell Westbrook now has gone from starter to sixth man and isn’t a lock to finish games, something that could spoil the visible joy he started the season with.
The Clippers’ losing streak is six straight — five with Harden — entering Friday’s game against one of his old teams, the Houston Rockets. But despite the disappointing start, Lue remains confident he can unlock the latest super team’s potential.
“Not even [just to] make it work, make them happy,” Lue said of the Clippers’ challenge. “That’s the biggest thing. … Just keeping everybody engaged, keeping everybody happy, it’ll be the hardest thing. But that’s alright.
“I feel confident. I know we are going to be good.”
Lue coached a star trio to the title with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland. But making this Clippers’ quartet of future Hall of Famers work just might be his most demanding task yet. Lue speaks regularly with Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, whom he bonded with while helping guide Team USA at the FIBA World Cup this summer.
Like Lue, Kerr and Spoelstra know what it is like to pilot super teams to a championship — and the growing pains to get there.
“When [the Harden trade] first happened, Steve said, ‘Oh my God, going to be crazy,'” Lue told ESPN. “But he said if any coach can handle it, you’re the one guy that can handle it.”
HARDEN CONTINUES TO try and rediscover his MVP-caliber game and not be “too polite” and deferential to his star teammates as Lue has pointed out. Lue also told Harden during Saturday’s team walkthrough that he had “free rein” to play his style.
Harden is forced to rewire his offensive game as a Clipper when it comes to the open looks he’s getting. In his first two appearances, losses to the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets last week, Harden passed on open catch-and-shoot opportunities, sometimes side stepping his way into a contested shot.
Early in the second quarter in Brooklyn, George made a spectacular block on Dorian Finney-Smith to stop a fast break. As George stared down Finney-Smith, the Clippers had a 3-on-2 break, and Norman Powell found Harden alone in the left corner.
Harden caught the pass with the nearest defender, Royce O’Neale, sprinting over from the paint. Harden, though, didn’t pull the trigger on the open catch-and-shoot. Instead, Harden pump-faked before flinging the ball high toward the opposite wing, sailing it straight into the lap of broadcasters sitting courtside.
Through five games, Harden is averaging 15 points on 10.2 shots per game, both his lowest since he averaged 16.8 points and 10.1 shots as the sixth man in his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2011-12 season.
Harden admitted he has spent much of the past decade getting used to creating his own offense.
“I haven’t really had catch-and-shoots for real, since like the OKC days,” Harden said. “You got so many great ball handlers that can draw double-teams and draw attention, when I get those opportunities, [I need to] shoot ’em.”
Since the Clippers traded for Harden and P.J. Tucker, Lue has employed 59 different lineup combinations, according to ESPN Stats & Information. While that is only eight more than Lue used in the first five games of the season, Lue’s substitution pattern is under a microscope.
Lue had started all four stars, who have been outscored by 20 points during their 76 minutes together, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also staggers them out in pairs, often teaming Westbrook with George to take advantage of their familiarity during their Thunder days while pairing Leonard with Harden.
Lue has started fourth quarters with Westbrook, George, Terance Mann, Powell and Tucker, but his substitution pattern also requires plenty of juggling. Against the defending champion Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, the shuffling nearly worked. The four stars were a plus-3 in 11 minutes together and the team was minutes away from pulling off their biggest win of the season before losing 111-108.
When the team needs more offense and shooting, Lue subs Harden in for Westbrook and goes with a small lineup of Harden, George, Powell, Mann and Leonard. When he needs defense, Lue will sub in Tucker or Westbrook — but that takes a shooter like Powell or possibly Harden off the floor.
Against the Nuggets, Leonard and George found themselves unsuccessfully having to combat Nikola Jokic in the paint. The two-time MVP carved the Clippers up, either drawing a foul inside on Leonard, or rebounding his own miss for a basket over the smaller Clippers when he didn’t beat double-teams by finding Aaron Gordon at the rim repeatedly.
Despite all the shuffling, George still had a chance to tie the score with 7.6 seconds left but his shot over Reggie Jackson lodged in between the side of the rim and the backboard.
Lue saw flashes of why he has been so steadfast in his lineup decisions. He went with the hot hand in George, who was aggressive and scored 35 points against Denver. And perhaps soon, it will be Harden’s turn. He looked more like himself, scoring in one-on-one situations and taking advantage of mismatches.
But he missed driving layups he normally makes. And there are moments like in the 105-101 loss at home to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday when Harden wiped the soles of his shoes with his hands as he dribbled and sized up Santi Aldama only to badly misfire a 3. After Tucker grabbed the rebound and gave the ball back to Harden, the point guard drove baseline only to have his shot rejected by Bismack Biyombo.
“I keep reiterating that I didn’t have a training camp really or preseason,” Harden said after the Denver loss. “So kind of learning on the fly for a new team and also getting myself into James Harden shape and game shape is very, very important.
“… I wasn’t really playing 5-on-5. We don’t really [have time to] practice. So these are my practices in games.”
NOT EVEN THE METHODICAL Leonard has been immune to the Clippers’ growing pains with Harden. Outside of a dominant 38-point effort in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Leonard has looked out of sync this month. His midrange game and clutch shot-making have surprisingly dipped. He has shot 10-for-37 (27%) from midrange this season, third-worse among 38 players with 25 or more attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Last season, Leonard made 49.2% from midrange, the fifth-best percentage among players with 175 or more attempts. Leonard displayed frustration toward center Ivica Zubac and pointed to where he believed Zubac should have been on the floor when the Clippers trailed the Grizzlies by 13 in the third quarter on Sunday.
“Just figuring each other out,” Leonard said about that loss. “There’s no magic to it.”
The franchise star hasn’t been able to get the Clippers out of this slide, uncharacteristically averaging 3.3 points on 39% shooting in fourth quarters this season compared to the 5.4 points and 51% shooting last season. Lue explained that defenses are blitzing and sending double-teams at Leonard.
In his past two fourth quarters, against Memphis and Denver, Leonard has shot 1-for-6 combined — not nearly enough attempts for Leonard to get into a rhythm.
“It takes the ball out of Kawhi’s hands, which is great for us,” Nuggets forward Gordon told reporters of the new-look Clippers.
Jokic even gave the Clippers one tip on how they can improve before stopping short of further assisting Lue.
“I think Zubac is going to be a big factor for them,” Jokic said. “Because I think the [stars] are going to be into pick-and-rolls and trying to get rid of the ball. So he’s going to be [a factor], if they find him, of course.
“To be honest, that’s their problem, how they’re going to figure it out. Maybe I know how to help, but it’s not my job.”
Lue has to navigate other obstacles with his star-studded lineup, according to one assistant coach on a Western Conference team that recently defeated the Clippers.
“They have no fast-break points,” the assistant coach told ESPN. “There’s no early baskets. It’s like, ‘OK, it’s your turn. I got an iso, now it’s my turn.’ How do you get a rhythm?
“Russell’s not that player that he used to be, but he’s still Russell Westbrook and he’s still a former MVP. He wants touches and he wants to make things happen. I don’t know, it just sort of seems like a bad mix to me.”
ON OPENING NIGHT, the Clippers dunked seven times on their first eight baskets against the Portland Trail Blazers. Westbrook threw down two of the slams in vintage Westbrook fashion, trying to tear the rim down while scowling and screaming.
Westbrook’s rediscovered joy following his miserable Lakers tenure could be felt on the other sideline by his former head coach in Oklahoma City and the Washington Wizards.
“He’s very happy,” Scott Brooks, now a Blazers assistant coach, told ESPN last month. “And they seem to enjoy his game and leadership. … I know [his tenure with the Lakers] wasn’t a good situation. Sometimes these things don’t fit. We’ve all had relationships and it just doesn’t fit. … But you can see that it’s a perfect fit right now.”
That fit is being challenged. As a starter alongside Harden, Westbrook had to adapt to coming out of games just over four minutes into the first quarter and return with George and the second unit. And while Lue likes what he has seen starting fourth quarters with that group, he eventually opts for a smaller lineup that sends Westbrook to the bench.
In an effort to halt the losing slide, Westbrook met with Lue before Thursday’s practice about coming off the bench for the first time as a Clipper, sources confirmed to ESPN.
Such a move, which was first reported by Bleacher Report, would allow Mann to start and be the glue guy they need with the stars. Before the season started, Lue named Mann a starter to complement Leonard, George and Westbrook but the versatile swingman injured his ankle.
When Lue had his two former MVP point guards on the floor together, Harden has the ball less with Westbrook running the point. Harden averages 3.8 seconds of touch length and 2.6 dribbles per touch when playing with Westbrook compared to 5.7 seconds and 4.8 without him, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Westbrook, who was the Lakers’ sixth man in 49 of 52 games last season before he was traded to Utah and eventually bought out of his contract to join the Clippers, can now run the second unit.
Another assistant coach with a team that recently beat the Clippers said on Wednesday that Lue’s stars need to sacrifice with maybe one of them offering to come off the bench.
“The only team I can think of that is similar was the Brooklyn team with [Kevin] Durant, Kyrie [Irving] and James,” the assistant said. “All those guys needed the ball. I could remember Kyrie sacrificing and saying let James handle the ball. I’ll play off the ball.”
The assistant added, “They have to buy into their roles. The sacrifice part is going to be huge. They got a lot of guys who need the ball. But they’re going to have to try to figure that all out and find a way to share it.”
Lue knows it will be hard to keep everyone happy. That progress he saw in Denver also came with Westbrook playing just 24 minutes — six below his season average.
“Every night it could be different,” Lue said of Westbrook’s usage on Tuesday. “But we need his leadership every single night. We need the way he plays every single night, his passion on the floor. … He understands that. And [we have] a constant dialogue and communicating.”
While George isn’t a glue guy, the star repeatedly said the Clippers will stick together and make this work with Harden.
“If we do get this thing rolling,” George said of what he has learned after five games with the new Big Four. “It’ll be a tough team to beat in seven games.”