James Harden has been really really good. But let’s face it, guys as historically nasty as he’s been in his career, are simply graded on another type of curve altogether.
The reality is the former MVP and three-time scoring champion hasn’t quite looked like his old self spanning the last calendar year. But it doesn’t seem as if it’s mere age-related. The 32 year-old has dealt with hamstring injuries over the last 12 months and it seems those have been the primary culprit, accounting for his somewhat declined burst.
“He’s still not there,” coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s shootaround at UCLA. “But his miles per hour have increased. He’s ... almost to the level of Houston as far as his miles per hour. He’s reached his top speed he hasn’t reached in two years.
“He’s still a work in progress. But [in] three weeks, we really feel at the time, he’ll be there at 100%.”.
Harden first started battling hamstring injuries back in late March, 2021. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were both out of the lineup a fair amount for the Brooklyn Nets at that time last season. So the Sixers’ Atlantic Division rival leaned heavily on their new blockbuster acquisition and he didn’t disappoint.
For example, there was the game a shorthanded Nets squad went to Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back. It was basically a scheduled loss vs. a healthy and rested, surging Suns squad, led by the Compton, California native’s former teammate Chris Paul, as well as Devin Booker. The home team built a 16 point lead with minutes remaining in the third quarter when The Beard went nuclear. Harden finished with 38 points, 11 dimes, and 7 rebounds, helping a team with Jeff Green, Tyler Johnson, and DeAndre Jordan snag an unexpected comeback win.
He may not have hit the miles per hour total it sounds like the Sixers’ advanced stats team tracks, but it didn’t matter. He had that burst and blew by whoever was in front of him and finished over whoever else came to help:
I don't know if this was "Rockets MPH fast" but here was James Harden on the second night of a b2b Feb 2021, beating a surging, healthy, rested Suns team w/ no KD or Kyrie.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) March 25, 2022
If the #sixers somehow get THAT guy for playoffs they can win the whole thing.https://t.co/4QN7Q5mcxF
About a month or so after that game, The Beard was on the Nets’ injury report with a (right) hamstring injury. He aggravated that one trying to return more than once. He had to come out of the early stages of the second round playoff series when the Nets battled the eventual champs, the Milwaukee Bucks. He finished that series but was clearly hobbled.
That turned out to be a rather serious, grade two right hamstring strain. Harden said the issue was in his rear view and he felt better than ever around training camp.
But after a somewhat slow start he did eventually admit he was not able to spend his usual off-season summer working on his game or playing any pick-up since he had to devote the entirety of his time off to recover.
He didn’t look like the same player other than spurts here or there to begin the 2021-2022 campaign. (He has looked his best after a couple of weeks off, like following his two week stint in health and safety protocols around Christmas, or during his first few games in Philly post All-Star break).
He picked up some tightness in the left (other) hammy back in late Jan.
There has been much debate about the severity of that injury, as some have questioned whether or not he simply quit on Brooklyn. But MRI’s by the Nets prior to trade did confirm tightness and a strength deficit. That’s why the Sixers opted to hold him out of the four games prior to the All-Star Break following the blockbuster Harden-Ben Simmons trade.
Pompey’s update continues, noting the Sixers believe they have the perfect expert on the matter in Simon Rice, the team’s VP of Athletic Care, to help The Beard find resolution in due time:
“We’re lucky. Simon wrote three or four books on hamstring injuries,” Rivers said. “It’s just luck that he’s on our staff. James has bought into him 100%.”
“It’s funny that the big thing with James, once he had those injuries, you could tell he didn’t want to play at top speed, because that’s how you hurt it. Simon’s philosophy is the exact opposite, to get him playing at that speed to condition the hamstring to be able to play at that speed.”
Harden ran the arena steps following a recent home game and he also does full-out sprints at practice. Rivers said that takes a lot out of Harden and probably hurts him before the game.
“But we are not worried about that game as much as we’re worried about the playoffs,” Rivers said.”
So Sixers fans have to hope that the team strikes the perfect balance between not overworking Harden and allowing Rice’s aggressive ramp up strategy to take effect.
It doesn’t seem impossible that Harden could need another full off season, this time spent with Rice, to get back to where he truly wants to be. Maybe they’d even suggest a lighter playing weight, who knows. But with ten regular season games remaining, they’ll hope they can win a title before they have to figure out precisely how he should spend his summer.