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Sixers have yet another chance to not overplay James Harden (they probably won’t take it)

James Harden needs a little load management: take three.

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sixers have basically had the wrong approach with James Harden’s load management program ever since they acquired him.

They had the wrong idea last season. He suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain with the Brooklyn Nets back in 2021. He injured the other one before the Sixers acquired him in January of 2022.

He’d had a couple MRIs on his hamstring, revealing tightness, coming over from the Nets. While many joked that he was dogging his way out of Brooklyn the truth was that he had a legitimately limiting ailment. The Sixers gave him a couple weeks off upon acquisition. But once they finally deployed him they went full throttle. And it was a mistake. He aggravated the issue and he was a shell of his best self come playoffs. Scaling back his games/minutes last March just might have helped, we’ll never know.

With two seasons of hamstring issues in his rear view the Sixers had a fresh start. A chance to manage his usage more responsibly this season. But predictably they didn’t take it.

They just basically treated him like a much younger player and they’ve not been careful with his minutes. When he first got hurt last month, he limped off the floor, received treatment, then was permitted to play another 30 minutes or so on a severely sprained foot. Even if 76ers med staff made the huge mistake by clearing him, is there dean of common sense suggesting they sit him anyway?

A week before he went down, even The New York Times reminded us about the importance of moderation:

“In basketball, the number of minutes played affects the risk of ankle and knee injury. To reduce these, teams use something called “load monitoring” — playing fewer back-to-back games or pitching fewer innings — to lower the stress on specific muscles or joints.”

Doc Rivers would mention that the team was relieved when they learned he’d only miss one month with the foot sprain. So why was he allowed to play a near full game on such a worrisome issue? A smarter approach would obviously have been to hold him out, no hindsight needed.

Common sense doofuses sitting on their couch would have made a better decision on Harden’s workload than this multibillion organization last month. What gives?

In his first game back, at Houston, a lot of fans wondered if James came back to soon as he shot just 4 of 19 with seven turnovers, completely fizzling down the stretch of a winnable game vs. his former team. In his next game back, he’d log 48 minutes total, as the team blew a 16-point lead with four minutes to play, forcing themselves to feel the need to squeeze every last second out of a 33-year-old star. He’s looked really good when fresh and healthy. Far less so, when he hasn’t.

In three games back in the fold, he’s averaged 43 minutes. No doubt the 47 minute gem vs. LA, which went to OT padded that average, but still. Sheesh.

After the ugly win over the Lakers, Doc Rivers discussed Harden’s minutes. Was he concerned he’s playing his top stars too much, especially without Tyrese Maxey in the fold to help?

“No, I was fine. I was fine with their minutes tonight,” Rivers said. “We just had three days off, got a day off tomorrow. We knew that going into the game. That it was gonna be a high-minute game. We can have one of those games right now. If it had been one of those stretches where it’s every other game that you go on they wouldn’t have played minutes like that.”

The Sixers were off Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so to be fair, that was an unusually long break. But don’t they as a coaching staff really worry about this stuff?

“No, it’s too early,” Rivers continued. “I’m not that concerned. Again, in the three days of rest we didn’t do much in these three days. I mean the second day we literally watched film so that’s two days off in a row. Yesterday we didn’t go very hard because we don’t have enough guys to do anything in practice so. We felt pretty good about heavy minutes tonight.”

Harden says he played a full 48 so he must be alright...

“I had a minute restriction [vs. Houston] and then [vs. L.A.] 48 [minutes], whole game so I guess I’m alright, but we gotta find a way to just be better throughout the course of the game so I’m not having a play these loads of minutes. I love the game of basketball, I love hoops so it is what it is.”

That one line about him ideally not having to play these loads of minutes is the closest James will come to admitting he needs a rest occasionally. But he does.

If Daryl Morey has his eye on the fact that champions usually land higher playoff seeds (something he’s said before), if Doc is coaching each game like his job depends on it, while still occasionally blowing huge leads like vs. Lakers Friday, and if Harden is sometimes pushing to play, then I suppose we might reasonably predict more of what we’ve seen over the last two-and-a-half seasons. Harden could burn out or get hurt. If he does, his teammates may follow suit trying to pick up slack in his absence. Anti-load management dominoes.

Back in 2019, Morey noted older teams tend to do better in the playoffs, but they have to be fresh. In the same podcast, he admitted finding it depressing his team was just 15 to 1 to win the title per Vegas. Well, now his Sixers are a 22 to 1 long shot. His team is arguably even older now too. But they’re still not doing much to keep Harden fresh for April, May and June yet.

And we can’t help but wonder: if they’d played Harden less earlier this season, might he have avoided injury back in early November? If he didn’t play on that sprain might he have returned sooner? And in turn, if he’d avoided injury, might guys like Maxey and Embiid (who’d subsequently get hurt while logging huge minutes, on top of huge usage rates, carrying a Hardenless, point guard-less group) have been able to avoid injury as well? It’s not a total stretch to wonder if an ounce of prevention might have been worth several hundred pounds of cures.

We’ll never know. What do we know? We know the regular season matters, seeding matters. We know home court in the playoffs is a big deal. But we also know the Sixers would have a better chance as an “outlier road-warrior” champion than they would as a “shorthanded, balky, playing with key injuries” champion.

We can only hope they self correct now. This dude is too damn good when he’s fresh and not good enough when he’s limited. Third time’s the charm?

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