While the Houston Rockets often look lost without James Harden, Mike D’Antoni can’t afford to run his superstar into the ground with 40-plus minute nights.
There’s no question that James Harden is on one of the biggest tears in NBA history right now. After 26 games, he’s averaging 39.3 points, 7.5 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game on 44.8 percent shooting from the field for the Houston Rockets. That 39.3 points per game scoring average is currently the third-highest in NBA history, only behind two seasons by Wilt Chamberlain (50.4 and 44.8) back in the early 60s.
The Rockets have needed every bit of Harden’s magic so far, often blowing big leads or falling further behind when he hits the bench for a few minutes to rest. Unfortunately, the team has looked like a borderline .500 team too often without The Beard, which is probably why he’ s averaging a career-high in minutes this season.
At 37.8 minutes per game, Harden is leading the league in time played and is already set to hit 1,000 minutes for the season when Houston hosts the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.
While James warrants as much playing time as he wants, there’s an intrinsic problem that comes with leaving him out on the court for so long. Everyone, even James Harden, gets tired and begins to burn out after hustling around a basketball court for 38 minutes a night.
While he still finished with 39 points, it was evident in Houston’s 115-107 loss to the Detroit Pistons that Harden was gassed out. Finishing 14-for-33, he was short on a lot of his jumpers and even missing finishes at the basket that he makes 95 percent of the time.
Harden’s minutes have looked like this in the last four contests: 38, 36, 41 and 40. Considering we’re only in December, that’s an unacceptable amount of time for anyone to be playing, no matter how much they’re in the zone. Yes, Houston has been suffering from unfortunate injuries and illnesses all season long and need Harden’s production, but the long-term risk to his career and health is too great.
Despite some early struggles, there’s no way the Rockets are going to miss the playoffs this season. Yet, Mike D’Antoni has a bad habit of playing his superstars too much with the fear that the rest of his roster can’t survive without them. Gary Clark and Chris Clemons are certainly no James and Russ, but they’re not bums either.
While injuries can happen at any given time during any given game, overworking the body makes it more susceptible to serious injuries. Not to say that Steve Kerr was overplaying his guys, but it’s not a stretch to say the Golden State Warriors constantly playing until June had something to do with the unfortunate ACL injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in back-to-back games last season.
Harden isn’t the only player being overplayed so far this season, either. P.J. Tucker is averaging a career-high 35.9 minutes per game despite being a career-high 34-years-old. In fact, Harden and Tucker are the only two players in the top ten in minutes per game that are 30 or older.
As I’ve argued recently, the duo has been the most reliable pair on the roster after 25 games, but at some point, Coach D’Antoni must loosen the reigns of his bench a little bit more before he runs his key players into the ground way before the postseason begins.
Harden has already said he’s not a fan of load management, but this is where a head coach needs to be a head coach. D’Antoni has the final say and needs to either rest Harden on occasion like he’s doing with Westbrook or start cutting down on the superstar’s minutes before it leads to fatigue or injury.