James Harden raised eyebrows when, upon joining the Los Angeles Clippers, he "I'm not a system player, I am a system," but he never directly specified what he meant. The obvious implication, after he compared his role in Philadelphia's offense to "being on a leash," was that he wanted to shoot more. At his peak in Houston, he averaged as many as 24.5 field goal attempts per game in a single season. Last season, he was down to 14.5. Four games into his Clippers tenure, he's averaging only nine.
That number is going to rise with time, but the statement was significantly more loaded than Harden likely intended. Harden teams tend to share a similar aesthetic. We can broadly define what the "Harden system" looks like beyond his usage because few players in recent NBA history have ever dictated his team's style more than Harden. Generally speaking, Harden teams have three things in common:
- They rarely move the ball. While Harden's 76ers ranked 13th in the NBA in passes per game last season according to NBA.com tracking data, that number was an anomaly. His Rockets ranked 24th during the 2015-16 season and then 28th or worse in his four final years in Houston.
- They rarely move without the ball. NBA.com has tracked player movement since the 2013-14 season and ranks teams by the total distance their players travel in miles on both offense and defense. We're focusing on offense here. Houston was below average on that front at that point. It barely avoided the bottom-five during the 2014-15 season. And then the Rockets ranked dead last in Harden's last five seasons in Houston. The Nets ranked 27th during the 2020-21 season and 29th during the 2021-22 season. Philadelphia ranked 28th last season.
- They dribble a ton. This trend took a bit longer to set, but really crystallized once the Rockets acquired Chris Paul. In Harden's three final years in Houston, the Rockets led the league in dribbles per touch twice and finished in second once. Obviously having Harden (and Paul, and Russell Westbrook) plays a big part in those rankings, but there's a bit of a trickle down effect there as well. When players know that they're not going to get the ball often, they tend to want to do more with it when they have it.
All of this should combine to paint a pretty clear picture of the sort of team we've all watched Harden lead for the past decade or so. Slow, deliberate, isolation-heavy and predictable. What's so interesting about what's happening with the Clippers right now is that, through four games, they've completely adopted that identity, and they've done it without ceding control of the offense entirely to Harden. In fact, coach Ty Lue has openly called for Harden "to be more selfish."
The nine shots per game Harden is taking as a Clipper puts him fourth on the team behind Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook. In fact, he's closer to Bones Hyland's fifth at eight shots per game than he is to Westbrook's third at 13.8. He isn't leading the team in total touches either, as George (56.8) just barely edges out Harden's 56.3. Harden is leading the team by dribbling an average of 3.84 times per touch, but at his peak, Harden averaged 5.97. Harden, for lack of a better term, isn't quite Harden-ing yet. But the Clippers? They've gone full Harden. Let's take a look at how they fared in some of these tracking numbers before Harden and with him.
Passes per game
Offensive distance traveled per game (miles)
Dribbles per touch
*Ranking reflects where the number would rank compared to full-season statistics for other teams
Make no mistake, the Clippers were never the Warriors. No iteration of this team was going to play a beautiful motion offense with tons of ball- and player-movement and limited dribbling. But prior to acquiring Harden, the Clippers at least largely fell within the range of a typical NBA team. That middle ground was leading to successful offense. The Clippers were scoring 117.4 points per 100 possessions before Harden's debut, which ranked fourth in the league at the time. They're down to 106.9 ever since, which ranks last.
Right now, they've fully succumbed to the style that suits Harden, and they aren't even benefitting from it in the ways that Harden teams typically do. He's not scoring efficiently in isolation. He's not drawing a ton of fouls. He's not leveraging his track record as a scorer into mismatches that create clean looks for his teammates. He's just sort of existing in the way of his teammates, a slow, dribble-happy guard that isn't cooperating within the sort of coherent system he's told us he doesn't want to be a part of. It's devolved the Clipper offense into the sort of "your turn, my turn" morass that so frequently stalls the development of early-stage super teams.
We are still very much in the early stages of this super team. Harden is going to get better as he gets into better shape and his teammates learn how to play off of him. But nothing in his own history suggests that he's going to be willing to play even the compromised version of team basketball that the Clippers employed before his arrival. He wants to play on slow teams that don't pass or move. That's all he's ever really done.
That's not necessarily a death sentence in itself. You can have an elite offense that is slow and rarely passes or moves. The "I am a system" version of Harden in Houston proved that. But this version of Harden is 34, not 28. He's been traded three times in three years, he's not entrenched within an organization that has designed everything to suit his style. His conditioning is dubious, and he's playing in one of the NBA cities known for its nightlife. If Harden was ever going to change, it was probably going to be before he reached this point, and if the Clippers have any sort of strategy to avoid being Harden-ized, they haven't exactly shown it so far.