What if the Clippers drafted James Harden instead of Blake Griffin?
What ifs are always an interesting game to play. They generally never lead anywhere, because what happened already happened, and there is no way to go back in time to change it.
But sometimes, the what ifs are very interesting.
Let’s take the 2009 NBA Draft, for example.
The Los Angeles Clippers took Blake Griffin with the No. 1 overall pick. Hasheem Thabeet then went No. 2 to the Memphis Grizzlies (yikes), and with the third overall selection, the Oklahoma City Thunder chose James Harden.
Griffin did not play that first year due to a knee injury, but in his debut season in 2010-11, he showed exactly why the Clippers used the top overall pick on him.
But in the end, it has been Harden who has had the better career.
Obviously, neither player is retired just yet, but judging from their current trajectories, it seems fairly safe to say that Harden is the superior player based on durability alone.
So, what if Los Angeles would have taken Harden instead? Where would LA be right now?
For starters, let me just say that Griffin was absolutely the right pick at the time. He was the consensus best player in the draft, and back in 2009, small ball had not become a theme. Bigs still ruled for the most part.
However, in 2020, things have obviously changed, as the NBA has become much more perimeter-oriented and it is not uncommon to see players around 6-foot-7 playing center in certain lineups. Also, the 3-point shot has taken off.
As a result, Harden has been able to thrive. One of the most gifted scorers the game has ever seen, the perennial All-Star defines efficiency and is the posterchild for the analytics movement.
Hate it or love it, Harden is one of the unguardable players in the league, and his ability to create his own shot as well as draw fouls is unparalleled in today’s game.
Griffin’s offensive repertoire has certainly evolved. Now a member of the Detroit Pistons, the University of Oklahoma product has developed a rather lethal all-around game. He can put the ball on the floor. He can score in the post. He can shoot from mid-range. He can shoot from beyond the arc. He can draw fouls and make his free throws. He can pass. He does it all.
But that certainly wasn’t the case throughout much of his seven-and-a-half-year tenure (not counting that 2009-10 campaign he missed) with the Clippers before being traded to the Pistons in January 2018.
As a matter of fact, in the early stages of Griffin’s career, he was widely criticized for being “just a dunker.” His offensive arsenal was very limited, and his rather lackluster defense didn’t do him any favors, either.
It hasn’t helped Griffin’s case that persistent injury issues have hampered him since Day 1.
Meanwhile, Harden has been a beacon of good health, having never really experienced any serious injury problems.
But back to the original question: what would have happened if the Clippers opted to take Harden instead of Griffin?
Well, no one really knows for sure, but let’s just assume that Los Angeles would have made the same moves in also drafting DeAndre Jordan and eventually trading for Chris Paul.
That would have given LA a trio of Harden, Paul and Jordan, and while it wouldn’t have been Lob City without Griffin, the tandem of Harden and Paul would have been impressive (just like it was in Houston years later), and Jordan would have been a terrific pick-and-roll partner for both guys.
Would the Clips have actually been any better, though?
The same front office still would have been intact, meaning the Clippers probably still would have made silly, cheap moves like signing Chauncey Billups, Paul Pierce, Glen Davis and Matt Barnes when they were all clearly finished.
Yes, the perimeter trio of Harden, Paul and JJ Redick would have been impressive, but where would Los Angeles’ frontcourt scoring have come from sans Griffin, and who would have been scoring off the bench other than Jamal Crawford?
We also didn’t even really know if Harden and Paul could have co-existed for that long. Let’s remember that they only lasted two years together with the Rockets before they had had enough of each other. Yes, they were very effective in Year 1, paving the way to 65 wins, but it didn’t take long for their egos to clash afterward.
Perhaps things would have been a bit different if Harden had played with Paul before he became the James Harden we know today, but you have to think the two players would have grown tired of one another at some point.
Realistically speaking, the Clippers would have been a healthier team with Harden over Griffin, but they probably wouldn’t have had much more success in the playoffs. That roster was just too flawed overall, and swapping out Griffin for Harden wouldn’t have raised LA’s ceiling that much.
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