Now thriving with Clippers, James Harden says ‘villain role’ is over with

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LOS ANGELES – James Harden was struggling. 

As he walked out of the arena following a recent LA Clippers game, he couldn’t fasten his bracelet, which was at least two inches wide and encrusted in diamonds. A security guard walking alongside him tried to help a few times, but the clasp refused to cooperate.  

In some ways, that might’ve been his biggest problem heading into the new year. 

The Clippers, the team Harden was traded to in October after an offseason of drama featuring a standoff with the Philadelphia 76ers, have been one of the NBA’s hottest teams over the past month. After initially struggling to find his fit and losing his first five games with the team, the 34-year-old Harden is now averaging 17.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and eight assists for the Clippers, who have won 12 of their last 14 games to climb to fourth place in the Western Conference with a record of 20-12.  

As for all the drama, he believes that’s behind him.

“Oh honestly, all of that, all that’s over with,” Harden told FOX Sports. “I don’t want to talk about it. Villain role or none of that. All of that is over with. I’m past it.”

Harden has made it clear that fans and pundits who are quick to judge him don’t know the whole story of what happened in Philadelphia and his previous stops of Brooklyn and Houston. But some in sports media believed that they had witnessed enough to form their own opinion. 

One of them, Brian Dameris, who formerly worked in the Dallas Mavericks front office before becoming a Mavericks broadcaster for Bally Sports Southwest, saw a two-minute video go viral in November as the Mavericks hosted the Clippers. In it, he detailed how teams have moved mountains to accommodate Harden – yet Harden always pointed the finger and absolved himself of blame when things fell apart. 

“Listen, James, have you ever had those friends who had bad roommates?” Dameris asked in the video. “Over and over again, they complained about their bad roommates. ‘This guy’s terrible.’ They never thought to be self-aware enough that they’re the bad roommate. They’re the problem. ‘Hey James, you’re the problem.'”

Harden, of course, heard those comments. Perhaps coincidentally, he helped the Clippers go on a nine-game winning streak a week after they were made. 

Did Harden use those words as motivation?

“No,” Harden told FOX Sports with a scoff. “Uh-uh.”

Regardless, Harden has been open this season that he takes issue with the narrative that he’s selfish, difficult and mercurial for requesting three trades en route to playing for four teams in four years. But now Harden is trying to move forward from it all. 

He’s driven by the metaphorical blank line among his lofty list of accolades. For the Compton native, winning a championship in his hometown would be especially meaningful, making his winding journey all worth it. 

“Very important,” Harden told FOX Sports when asked what a ring would mean to his legacy. “It’s been like that. I always want to give myself a chance to win. I know how very difficult that is. There’s only one team standing at the end of the year. So, I’ll continue to keep trying to do that.”

When Harden demanded the 76ers trade him, he made it clear that he wanted to play for the Clippers. And the team’s superstar cast of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook welcomed the offensive wizard with open arms. 

“The reason why he’s here is we wanted him here,” said George, who remembered first being wowed by Harden when he put the ball between his legs and dunked when they were teenagers playing at a Skills Academy in LA.

But with Harden on the court, the Clippers initially looked like a disparate cast of All-Stars instead of a cohesive unit. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged that initially Harden wasn’t playing his game.

“He was taking six, seven shots a game,” Lue said. “But now, I think with the rotation change [Westbrook moving to the bench] – getting him out early and getting him back with the second unit – has allowed him to be more aggressive. When he’s attacking the basket, making those step-back 3s, running a lot of pick-and-rolls, we’re a dangerous team. And so, just getting him more comfortable was the biggest thing. He has been doing a great job ever since.”

[Emotion vs. Analytics: Why James Harden and Daryl Morey were always destined to implode]

Harden has preached sacrifice since coming to the Clippers. 

The former league MVP doesn’t need to average his career-high of 36.1 points that he had with Houston in 2018-19. Or his career-high of 11.2 assists that he had with the team in 2016-17. 

But he needs to be himself. 

He has to create open shots for his teammates. Be a threat out of the pick-and-roll. And be a reliable presence on the court, especially considering Leonard and George have often struggled with injuries.

For Harden, what changed between his sputtering start with the Clippers to now is very simple to explain. 

“Just more games being played with the team,” Harden told FOX Sports. “More games.”

Harden seems willing to do whatever is needed. He knows his championship window is shrinking. He has only made it to the Finals once in his career, when his Oklahoma City Thunder lost to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2012. 

When asked if he believes this team will give him the best shot at winning a title, he paused. 

“I don’t know yet,” Harden told FOX Sports. “It’s too early. We have 50-something games left.”  

Just as he’s not looking behind him, he refuses to look ahead. 

In that moment, what mattered to Harden most was the problem in front of him – clasping his stubborn bracelet. When he eventually got it secured, he nodded and smiled. 

Everything these days seems to be going his way again.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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