Distribution of minutes is a serious problem for the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets James Harden P.J. Tucker (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Houston Rockets James Harden P.J. Tucker (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Mike D’Antoni’s overdependence on veterans is destined to come back to haunt the Houston Rockets if it’s not addressed sooner than later.

In the NBA, especially the Western Conference, managing minutes is tricky. Yes, you want to make the playoffs with the highest seed possible, but you also want to be ready for the postseason with a healthy, rested squad. The Houston Rockets are making great progress with the first of these goals, but it’s coming at a cost.

Despite a season-long injury to Gerald Green and Eric Gordon only being able to play nine games so far, the Rockets are still sitting at 22-10 going into Sunday night’s matchup in New Orleans. That 68.8 winning percentage has them sitting at third in the West, only half a game behind the Denver Nuggets for second and three games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for first. So how has Houston been doing it?

Obviously, the success of Clutch City can largely be attributed to their superstar backcourt of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Harden is tallying 7.5 assists, 5.9 rebounds and an insane 38.3 points per game while Russ is averaging 24.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The duo is taking over games and willing the Rockets to victory time and time again, but that overdependence is going to lead to some problems.

I’ve previously discussed how Coach Mike D’Antoni needs to do something about Harden’s heavy workload to avoid burnout. At the time, James was averaging a league-leading 37.8 minutes per game. After 32 games, nothing has changed, as he’s still playing 37.7 minutes per game, which accounts for 79 percent of each contest. In the last three games, James has played 38 or more minutes per.

What often seems to be happening with the team is expected: when James hits the bench, the team suffers from droughts that are either causing them to blow a lead or fall further behind. When Russell Westbrook has it going, the good news is the Rockets generally don’t suffer too much during these stretches, but Russ hasn’t always had it going this season. The ensuing runs Houston gives up often cause D’Antoni to have a short leash on guys that are covering for James, leading to his rest being more limited than it should be.

The wins will come. The team as a whole is too talented to finish outside of the top four, even in the loaded West. Guys that are already logging decent minutes, like Ben McLemore, could soak up some of Harden’s minutes when he needs a breather. Someone else like Chris Clemons should also be getting more run to reduce the workload for James, especially when Westbrook is managing well on his own. The scoreboard will undoubtedly tilt in favor of opponents more often than not in these stretches, but that’s the case with every team in the league when they sit their stars.

We’ve mentioned it several times before, but Gary Clark should definitely be getting more minutes considering he’s averaging 11.5 while 34-year-old P.J. Tucker is logging a career-high 36.2. Tucker’s contributions this season have been as valuable to the team as anyone outside of Harden, but we’re talking about a guy that has played over 600 NBA games in his career and hundreds more throughout his time overseas.

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Speaking of averaging a career-high in minutes, Clint Capela‘s 33.6 per game is the same as he averaged last season, which was a career-high then. Being a traditional 6-10 center already leads to being banged up throughout the course of a season, and playing 70 percent of all games certainly can’t be helping.

Going into the second night of a back-to-back, Capela is out with a right heel contusion while Harden is questionable with a right toe sprain. Playing heavy minutes isn’t a direct cause for injuries but it definitely increases the likelihood of them as time passes. The good news is Eric Gordon is finally making his return Sunday against the Pelicans.

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With an important peace returning to the lineup in Gordon, it’s imperative for Mike D’Antoni to start trusting his role players more and letting them learn from their mistakes. While it might cost the team some wins in the regular season, it will help preserve the difference-makers when the pressure is really on in April.