The Sixers have rattled off six wins in a row, and they certainly would not have been able to do that without the sharp play of one James Harden. One problem, three recent games went to overtime, and the team has been pushing The Beard at a torrid clip.
But prior to the Sixers most recent win over the lowly Detroit Pistons, head coach Doc Rivers admitted he wasn’t concerned with his de facto point guard’s workload.
“Not worried at all,” Rivers said. “It’s early in the year. I’ll guarantee by the end of the year you’ll look at his numbers and they’ll look great. It’s a whole year. That’s why we can’t overdo things when guys have a three-week spike in minutes and all of a sudden, we’re overreacting to that. No, you don’t. We’ve been low on guards and so guys have to play minutes,” Rivers said. “And James is one of those guys that can handle minutes, but by the end of the year, his minutes will be down.”
Rivers is taking the approach that it’s the total number of minutes that Harden plays in a regular season that’s the concern, and so he can make up for some load management down the line, I guess?
Basically, it’s the opposite of the more common and conservative “ramp up” teams use to ease players returning from significant injury back into action. Rather than playing him 35 minutes per game with a night off occasionally, then bump that up to 37 by winter if he proveds healthy, they’re opting to do it all in reverse. That is, play him 38-40 minutes from the jump, before we’ve seen how healthy (or not healthy) he looks, then dial that back later in the season. The plan arguably already backfired when he missed a month of time. But they’re going right back to the well.
It’s your first game back? Sprint for a few weeks and then we’ll get you jogging later.
Rivers points to the small sample of a three week spike. To that end, the Sixers possessed double-digit leads in each of those three games that wound up in OT, and they certainly would’ve preferred to have handled business in regulation.
And while they’ve cleaned up a few things since that Houston loss, Harden (who shot a crummy 4-19 in that one) in particular, the 33 year old veteran’s minutes are higher than even before he hurt his foot and missed a month. In fact the 10 time All-Star is leading the entire league minutes per game.
James Harden was playing too many minutes before he sprained his foot. He played too many minutes ON that sprained foot. Then he missed a month. How did Sixers respond? Dialed up his minutes. He’s now leading the entire nba in mpg. Now at nearly 40 mpg (39.7) since return.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 20, 2022
I’m not exaggerating. Harden, who Doc says can handle big minutes, has battled two consecutive seasons of career altering hamstring injuries, which admittedly led the future Hall of Famer to his career’s “low point,” and (in my opinion) cost him a ring, is now leading the entire NBA in minutes per game! Tom Thibodeau stuff!
Wasn’t it time to revisit this idea that he can handle league-leading minutes, like two seasons ago?
I covered the Brooklyn Nets a year ago and felt that team pushed Harden wayyyy too hard leading up to his hamstring setback, that issue followed him over to Philly. Rivers notes that was a totally different situation, with conditioning related elements.
Former Nets coach Steve Nash admitted he wasn’t comfortable with how much Kevin Durant was playing back in December 2021.
“It’s a really important topic,” Nash said about a year ago. “I don’t know we can continue to lean on him the way we have. It doesn’t feel right....I know he’s enjoying it. I know he’s enjoying playing at the rate he’s playing at and trying to bring his teammates along with him and all the responsibility that he’s accepted and crushed, basically. It’s just been incredible. But, at the same time, it’s not safe or sustainable to lean on him like that. There’s gonna be a lot of consideration, and we’ll have to figure out ways to give him breaks.”
Those foreboding comments came a few weeks before Durant’s season-derailing knee injury. KD was averaging just under 37 mpg at the time. Harden is well past the mark that once worried Nash regarding Durant. So why isn’t Doc worried about James? Just because the Sixers are low on guards doesn’t make any of the ones picking up the slack magically bionic... especially the oldest one whose been injured now three seasons in a row.
I’m sure this is an organizational decision with Daryl Morey, Elton Brand, med staff and James Harden all involved, so Doc shouldn’t be the only person we focus on. But Doc does hold that all important rotation card.
And I can’t help but wonder if occasionally, a coach with a terrifying historical track record of blown leads, worries more about blowing that next big lead than he does worry about a star picking up a needless injury in garbage time (right, Pascal Siakam?)
Not to be a broken record but… The Sixers are up 18 with 4 and change to go still leaning on Embiid and The NBA mpg leader Harden.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) December 22, 2022
Want his burst back for a run in May? OK, so why is he still logging burn vs. the Victor-chasing Pistons when the team is up by 18 so late in the fourth? If the team blows big leads, fans look at Doc. If the players aren’t healthy, fans tend to give him a pass.
Doc Rivers said he’s not worried at all about James Harden’s minutes. Said he believes those numbers should go down slowly over the course of the season.— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) December 21, 2022
Maybe when Tyrese Maxey comes back things will be different? Well when they were both active, the two of them were leading the league in minutes so maybe not. To that end, we got an non-update on Tyrese. We still don’t know when he’ll make his return from a fractured foot.
Doc Rivers said there’s no update on Tyrese Maxey. Said he’s improving and offered little else.— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) December 21, 2022
Is it safe to assume that when Maxey comes back, and they’re less “low on guards” they’ll scale Harden’s minutes back?
“Yeah, slowly,” Rivers continued. “Honestly, it’s not like- there’s things on our checklist. I can tell you that’s not one of them. We’re not that concerned with that. But [Harden’s] minutes will go down slowly. Once all the guards are back.”
So what’s the latest on Tyrese? “Same,” Doc said. “He’s just working. I don’t think there’s an update. He’s improving and we will see him at some point I just don’t know when.”
So for now we can expect the Sixers to continue leaning on the Beard as if he’s not an injury risk... even though he is very much one.