Four games into this young season and James Harden appears healthy for the first time in awhile. He’s finishing a bit better than last season. He’s having an easier time blowing by his initial defender. He’s added some steady midrange to his arsenal, after being famously devoid of that in his more analytic-heavy days of Rockets past.
He may have played a bit too much in the first two, because he did look pretty off in the third vs. the Spurs. If fatigue was a factor at all, that’s something to monitor closely.
With him looking mostly back, now the Sixers must learn from both their own and the Brooklyn Nets’ past mistakes, Harden must learn from his mistakes, and they all need to collaborate on a load management, minutes restriction program to keep him fresh for a potential 110-game title-winning season.
Harden’s scary history with hamstring pulls
Over the last couple seasons the future HOFer has been plagued by some soft tissue hamstring injuries in each leg, dating back to late March of 2021.
It probably all started back when James Harden was infamously ... heavy looking, (not shaming any endomorphs) back in 2020 when he wanted out of Houston.
Harden putting the Sherman Klump fatsuit back in storage now the deed is done pic.twitter.com/GWvwFiljkt— Krish (@Krishan_Mamba24) February 10, 2022
By the time he suited up for Brooklyn, James may not have been in peak form, but he was the best player on the Nets, the only night in, night out All-NBA caliber dude, as Kevin Durant was slowly acclimating back to NBA life, returning from Achilles surgery. And Kyrie Irving was out of the lineup in those days for either mysterious personal reasons or nagging injuries.
Harden, then 31, carried the load largely by himself.
He’d only gotten to appear in seven total games with both KD and Kyrie when he first pulled the hammy in late March of 2021. Leading up to that, in the nine games post All-Star Break, Durant was out, and The Beard logged just six games with Kyrie, all while playing over 39 minutes per game. He looked absolutely lethal. But it was clearly too much to ask to chase a one seed with such little help.
They knew Harden wasn’t in the best of shape when they acquired him, but nonetheless, they placed the heaviest of burdens on him. And yeah, he got hurt.
I interviewed Ian Begley of SNY, that Spring, who told us “Harden is a gamer” and wants to be out there. So when he’s not, he’s legit injured. But the Nets had a much more conservative approach with Kyrie and KD in those days. Why didn’t they feel the need to load manage The Beard though? Was it because he had no major surgeries in his past? If they had, I assume we’d all feel very differently about the Nets over the last couple seasons.
So you know how that played out. Harden was third in the KIA MVP Ladder at the time he got hurt. And we’ve since learned he may not have taken the rehab as seriously as he needed to.
They held him out for the rest of the year and then he was sensational in round one of the playoffs vs. Boston, but then pulled it again early in Game 1 vs. the Bucks. He/the Nets would make the mistake of asking him to play through what would later be deemed a Grade 2 strain. And it seems likely, in hindsight, that set back his ultimate recovery many, many months, and (perhaps severely) impacted his contract negotiations.
The Nets first pushed him too hard and then let him down again by allowing him to keep going in a winnable playoff series that came down to a toe on the line.
Kevin Durant’s toe is proof how silly it is to rate great players by titles. If KD’s toe is 1 inch farther out, Bucks lose & media experts tell you Giannis wasn’t elite. But truth is Giannis was always a winner & Chris Paul no less great w/o a ring.— ChuckModi (@ChuckModi1) July 21, 2021
Media needs to be smarter. pic.twitter.com/wgxDFztZxk
Someone needed to step in and say enough was enough. Nobody did.
James started out very slowly last season. The talk about his declined burst and inability to get free throws was a talking point right away a year ago. Steve Nash shared that James hadn’t had the chance to play much over the summer due to rehabbing.
Still, Brooklyn, even after all that had happened in 2021, was pretty aggressive with their future Hall of Famer’s minutes. It wasn’t until he caught COVID in Dec. 2021, and got a couple weeks off, when he finally started to resemble himself towards the holiday season.
He took it right to LeBron James recording 36 points, 10 boards, 10 dimes, three blocks, one steal, the second ever X-Mas day 30+ point triple-dub:
In the 16 games between Christmas and Jan. 25, James Harden played really well. He dropped 26.4 points, shooting 44.1 % from the floor and 33.7 % from downtown, and finally got his FT numbers up to 9.3 attempts per game, to go with an elite 11 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game.
But over that span Harden averaged 38.2 mpg, topping over 40 minutes nearly half (seven games) of the sample. Plus, he was asked to do a ton of heavy lifting as KD and Kyrie were only available for two of that 16. The same mistake again? Probably.
Kyrie Irving was not available at all for the first chunk of the year, and then only eligible to play on the road. It didn’t lighten up when Durant went down with a knee. Dude came to Brooklyn to be part of a three-headed monster, but way too many nights, despite coming off a serious leg injury, he was head of the snake again. You can see why he wanted to be in Philly.
By Jan. 26, 2022, before the trade, we got this stuff: “Questionable is all I got,” Nets coach Steve Nash said, “he’s reported a little hamstring tightness so we’ll see how it goes when he gets through his protocols.”
“It is a challenge,” Nash said. “We would like to protect him more. But he’s a competitor and wants to be out there so we try to have our little tug of war and I think that’s why at times we’d like to ask him to miss games so that he can regenerate and be a little bit safer as far as being ready to go when the playoffs begin.”
He would have more than one MRI around that time, revealing some tightness in the left hammy. That’s the one that bugged him in Philly. It had been the right one, the prior season.
All of it reminded us of Chris Paul’s journey, pulling one badly during a playoff, then dealing with the other one the next season.
There were tons of jokes about Harden dogging it to get out of Brooklyn. Maybe some of that was true. But there was clearly a limiting soft tissue ailment with scans to back it up.
“The [MRI] is pretty good but there’s a strain — there’s a tightness, sorry, not a strain, a tightness and a strength deficit,” said Nash shortly before the trade. “So, honestly, we just don’t want to take any chances. We know last year we lost him for an extended period.”
Just like after the two-week COVID “break,” Harden took two weeks off upon being traded to Philly. And just like in December it seemed to rejuvenate him... for a time.
Harden would crack 27 or more points five times in his 33 games as a Sixer last season. Two of those instances were in his first two games with the team. Clearly, the layaways helped.
He’d miss a game for a back-to-back, the team citing hamstring maintenance. But hit a shooting slump. Maybe it was more than just precautionary stuff?
Nearing mid-March he wasn’t playing very well, but despite the soft-tissue stuff, they kept asking for huge minutes. It was a mistake the Sixers had made in the past with Joel Embiid, seeing him struggle, but dialing up his minutes anyway, during grueling patches of the schedule.
Rivers played Harden over 40 minutes per game between March 13- March 25, before admitting his star’s hamstring was “still not there.” And by March 27, going just 2 of 11 in Phoenix, cameras caught him visibly pawing at that troublesome thigh. Maybe, someone like Sixers Vice President of Athletic Care Simon Rice would say pushing it was helpful. If so, that aggressive approach didn’t seem to work midseason. Yes, he had some moments in the playoffs, but was a shell of the player we knew by that final game.
So what’s the plan now?
Through four games so far this year, Harden is fourth in the league in minutes total. Only Toronto’s trio of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. has played more. That’s obviously not ideal. It’s arguably insane.
I haven’t heard much about a formulaic load management plan yet. If the teams idea is some version of “it’s totally safe to play a guy whose been dramatically limited over the last two seasons all he can handle, now at 33 years old, we may be heading down a familiar road.
So the Sixers may not feel they have the “luxury” to really be conservative with him. He’s such a vital component to their championship odds. But it doesn’t matter. The Nets obviously didn’t feel they had the luxury to rest him either.
The Sixers have to take a vastly different approach to the one they took last season, and the one the Nets took before them. And Harden can do his part. He knows the history, and the stakes. He shouldn’t even be asking to play that much if he wants one more monster pay day. Because if he keeps pulling hammies, both he and the team will wish they modeled the title winning Raptors or Spurs more than the 2021 “Super Team” Nets.