There are some unknowns about the newest iteration of the Los Angeles Clippers: Who will start and close games? What will James Harden's presence mean for Russell Westbrook's role? How often will Kawhi Leonard or Paul George initiate offense when Harden is on the court? Will there be more small ball?
Harden won't make his debut until Monday at the earliest, and some of these questions won't be answered without trial and error. On Wednesday, the Clippers simultaneously preached patience and projected confidence that the team would come together.
"We've talked leading up to it," George told reporters following a 130-125 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. "The reason why he's here [is] we wanted him here. We all said we think we can make it work, we'll figure it out. But we've obviously gotta practice, we gotta play for us to really get on the same page and understand how to play on the floor with one another."
Clippers president Lawrence Frank and coach Tyronn Lue both pointed to Harden's recent stints with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers as reasons to believe the former MVP and 10-time All-Star will fit in.
"In Brooklyn, you saw at different moments of the game (when) he'd be strictly a playmaker, and then at times when he'd be with the second unit, he was more of a scorer," Frank told reporters. "And in his first full year in Philly, you saw the pride he took helping make Joel Embiid be the MVP."
Just like the Nets and the Sixers, the Clippers acquired Harden with their eyes on an NBA championship. They have been all-in since Leonard and George arrived in 2019, since which time their backcourt has seen many players come and go -- Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Rajon Rondo, Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, Eric Gordon -- but has never included a playmaker like Harden.
"It was an opportunity to maximize Kawhi and Paul and to give us the highest chance to win," Frank said. "It's our responsibility not just to Kawhi and Paul and to the coaching staff and to the people in the organization, but to our fans to look at every single way where we can raise our ceiling. James is a ceiling-raiser."
Lue told reporters that the Clippers "need his passing ability" and that Harden is "definitely going to make the game easier for PG and Kawhi." The idea is simple: For a team that too often relies on making difficult pull-ups, adding a player who has consistently generated dunks and 3s will help.
"We're not asking him to carry the team, we're asking him to fit and complement with Paul, Kawhi, Russ and the rest of the guys," Frank told the Los Angeles Times. "We're gonna be able to share the burden and the load that comes with trying to win playoff games. So we just felt, look, with his passing, high IQ, he's shown that he can do it, he takes pride in doing it. And he also can score. You need him to score, he can obviously do that. He's a very, very unique player who helped change, you know, over the last 10 to 12 years of how the game looks."
Ideally, Los Angeles' pieces will naturally slide into place, if not right away then with time and some tweaks to the rotation. In theory, the contrasting styles of Harden and Westbrook -- "two different beasts," in George's words -- could keep opponents off-balance, allowing the Clippers to find easy points in transition when Westbrook is on the court and run select bread-and-butter actions through Harden in crunch time.
"Russ is more attack, get downhill, speed and pace, and James is more slow, playing his game," Lue said. "And so it's a difference. It's a big difference between those two games, and then so now when you're kind of staggering those guys, it's going to be a different pace for the game."
Whenever a bunch of high-usage players team up, they have to learn how to play off of each other. "The beauty of it," George said, "is there's energy that will be saved up from not having to do it all." Lue said that the trade "came at the perfect time" because the Clippers have four days off before they visit the New York Knicks on Monday, but that "it's going to take a lot of sacrifice, whether it's shots, whether it's minutes," for this to work. Lue said that the Clippers' four future Hall of Famers from Southern California are "willing to do that," adding that it's his responsibility to put everybody in the right spots.
The challenge, Lue said, would be "making sure everyone stays involved in the offense" and is able to play in rhythm. That is typically easier when a few of the players on the floor are used to operating without the ball.
"I think we still have to come in kind of with like a selfish mindset, meaning we can't look over our shoulder and say this guy is going to win the game or this guy is going to win the game for us," Leonard told reporters. "We still have to step on that floor like we're out there by ourselves. And from there it's going to be sacrifice. It's only one basketball, and yeah, we just gotta figure it out from there. I think we all are old enough to understand what we want to do here."
Maybe the way to do that is to put the ball in Harden's hands and tell him to be the point guard, with Westbrook changing games off the bench. If it's Harden's job to get other guys going, then everybody else can, theoretically at least, focus on doing what he does best.
Even that, however, could be a balancing act. Harden likes to run the show, and for most of the last decade he's had the freedom to run it how he sees fit. In this respect, his lamentably small sample of games alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was extremely encouraging, but his best work in Brooklyn preceded a severe hamstring injury and those Nets didn't have a Westbrook type.
As enthused as the Clippers sounded about having Harden aboard, they were careful not to say too much about the mechanics of integrating him. George and Westbrook both cautioned that they can't see the future, and Lue said he doesn't know whether or not he'll start all four together. Given how long the trade had been in the works, though, Lue won't pretend that he's scrambling to figure out a plan.
"Thought about it a lot," Lue said.