Ohm YoungmisukESPN Staff WriterNov 2, 2023, 08:32 PM ET5 Minute Read

Harden: ‘I’m not a system player, I am a system’

Newly acquired Clippers guard James Harden clarifies his comments of being on a “leash” in Philadelphia.

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — James Harden said he sacrificed millions along with his playing style, which he said was “on a leash” during his stint with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Harden said he tried to do what was needed to win in Philadelphia, but that the 76ers front office did not want him. Now with the Clippers, Harden is hopeful he can change some of the negative narratives surrounding him following rocky exits from Brooklyn and Philadelphia and prove that he is still an elite star who can fit in with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook and win a championship.

At his introductory news conference Thursday at the Clippers’ facility, Harden described what he felt went wrong in Philadelphia.

“Taking $26 million less to sign and make the team better,” Harden said. “Changing my role, which media [felt] is ball dominant, which my ball dominance is really effective. But changing my role, trying to change the narrative, trying to sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win at the highest level. That’s not talked about. It’s the other BS.

“So me leaving Brooklyn and thinking I’m going to retire as a Sixer, and the front office had other plans. They didn’t want me. … There’s a lot of narratives and people think they have an opinion. … But none of that is true.”

Harden went through his first workout as a Clipper on Thursday and remains on track to make his Clippers debut at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks on Monday. Clippers coach Ty Lue has a four-day break to use as a minicamp to integrate Harden and P.J. Tucker into his offense before they open a three-game road trip in New York.

Harden, who averaged 10 assists per game the past three seasons, hopes he can unleash his playing style under Lue. He said he felt constrained while with the Sixers, that he was “on a leash” and not able to play his best offensively, whether facilitating or scoring alongside Joel Embiid.

And Harden explained that “being on a leash” doesn’t necessarily apply to how many shots he was getting.

“I think the game and I’m a creator on the court,” Harden said. “So if I got a voice to where I can, ‘Hey, Coach, I see this. What you think about this?’ Somebody that trusts me, that believes in me, that understands me. I’m not a system player. I am a system. You know what I mean?

“So somebody that can have that dialogue with me, understand, move forward, figure out and make adjustments on the fly throughout the course of games, that’s all I really care about. It’s not about me scoring a basketball, scoring 34 points. I’ve done that already.”

The Clippers see Harden as a ceiling raiser, someone who can make life even easier for Leonard and George. Harden, Leonard, George and Westbrook have talked about sacrificing, about being beyond individual statistics and trying to come together to help the Clippers win their first NBA title. Having all been successful in such situations, the four stars will have to share the basketball.

One bond they already share, though, is that they grew up in Southern California and want to do something special.

“I’m back home,” said Harden, who played at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California. “I just think the comfort level of me being around family and then having some really, really, really good players on this team. All four dudes from California. This is a unique story. So with all that coming together, it just made sense.”

This is the third time Harden and Westbrook will team up after they played together at Oklahoma City and Houston.

“I’ve been knowing Russ since Boys and Girls Club in LA,” Harden said. “So our relationship goes far beyond basketball. He was one of the reasons [of wanting to be traded to the Clippers]. He feels like he has something to prove as well. We got a goal that we’re trying to accomplish. And what better way to do it together in LA.”

Harden sees similarities between the Clippers and his situation with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn before injuries derailed that team.

“I was in a similar situation in Brooklyn, where you’ve got two guys that can score the basketball, create mismatches with defenses,” he said. “So I’m fine on the basketball, off the basketball. Pick and roll, catching and shooting. We have some really good coaches. We have some really unselfish players.

“I think [I can] score the basketball. I’m a very, very good basketball passer as well. So I can facilitate.”

Harden said he is looking forward to proving a lot with the Clippers.

“Everything,” Harden said when asked what he has to prove. “That I’m very elite as an individual and then I can fit in with anybody and make a championship run work.

“So I think all of us are on the same page in the sense of the individual stats and all those things are past us. We all got one goal and I think everybody knows what that is.”


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