Clippers move to 1st place in West after starting season 3-7

We're not going to say the entire NBA world was calling the Los Angeles Clippers a bust in November, but that sure seemed to the consensus of the louder voices.

Well, times have changed. Thanks to losses by the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers have moved into first place in the Western Conference with a record of 34-15.

LA has won nine of its last 10 and most recently beat the Atlanta Hawks in a 149-144 shootout.

Obviously, the Clippers aren't guaranteed to stay there and are still months away from the playoffs where the team has obviously seen no significant success. They will remain the Clippers until they do something the Clippers have never done.

And yet, their changes since Nov. 14 have been wild.

On that date, the team lost its sixth straight game and its fifth straight since going all-in on James Harden. That defeat was particularly brutal, a close one to a Denver Nuggets team missing Jamal Murray to effectively eliminate them from the NBA in-season tournament. Paul George was so incensed he made comments about the refs that cost him $35,000.

It was at that point a few changes were made:

  • Russell Westbrook was moved to the bench, reportedly at the former MVP's suggestion. Harden and Westbrook were always a curious on-court fit given they are both extremely ball-dominant guards. The team hasn't seen a lineup with both players log more than 50 minutes in the 39 games since.

  • Terance Mann, a better defender who plays a more complementary role on offense, moved into the starting lineup.

  • The team signed veteran big man Daniel Theis to replace the injured Mason Plumlee. The team had previously been using the undersized P.J. Tucker in that role, to little effect. Theis hasn't been a standout for LA, but he's been a stabilizing presence.

  • Head coach Tyronn Lue shortened the bench and started using certain players much less, most notably Tucker, who is reportedly seeking a trade, and young guard Bones Hyland.

Perhaps the most significant move was to simply let Harden settle into an offense alongside George and Kawhi Leonard, who once again looks like one of the most dominant players in the NBA. Since returning from a hip injury on Jan. 1, Leonard is averaging 24.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting a wildly efficient .550/.506/.922.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 05:  James Harden #1 of the LA Clippers reacts after hitting a three-point basket against the Atlanta Hawks during the first quarter at State Farm Arena on February 05, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
James Harden was a big swing for the Clippers. They appear to have made contact. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images)

It was easy to make fun of Harden during the losing streak. It made for a fun narrative, that of the washed-up bridge-burner who managed to sink a would-be NBA power. The reality is he was a player (a system?) who joined the team days before his debut with no training camp or preseason and was suddenly expected to have the entire offense run through him.

After some growing pains, the Clippers look, well, grown. Again, we will see if the team works as well when the pressure is on and opponents get repeated looks at them in the NBA playoffs, but they've managed to put themselves in a position that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.