James Harden dealt with hamstring injuries in 2021 and 2022. So heading into this season, the Sixers had a choice with their 10-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion and former league MVP: adopt a conservative approach and keep tabs on his minute totals, maybe give him the occasional night on a back-to-back slate, bringing him back into the fold, avoiding past mistakes, prioritizing the playoffs…OR, they could just playing like he was 24, allowing him to lead the league in minutes, playing back-to-back, while also asking him to carry the extra burden with Joel Embiid regularly out of training to deal with his own ailments.
I would humbly submit my vote for the minus now is later approach, since the hyper-aggressive approach backfired on Brooklyn in 2021 and 2022. And for Philly in late 2022 as well.
I wrote on October 25, “I haven’t heard much about a formula-based load management plan yet. If the team’s idea is a version of “he’s completely safe to play a guy who’s been drastically limited in the last two seasons all he can handle, now at 33, we may be heading down a familiar road.
But the Sixers went the other way, full throttle:
James Harden is going to play through some type of lower leg issue here… Guess he can maintain his status as the NBA minutes leader. Seems cautious pic.twitter.com/9mIxiucXVn
— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 3, 2022
They didn’t have to limit him to 30 minutes per game, but neither did they need to play him exactly as much as they do (now 22-year-old) Tyrese Maxey. Come on, lol. There was a happy medium that existed and Philadelphia didn’t seem to care. Heading into Game 6 of the season, Harden was averaging 37 minutes per game and appeared in the team’s first straight game against Chicago. He shot just 2 of 13. The last time he scored just two field goals in a game was in March 2022, in a game at Phoenix. when he was seen holding the back of his thigh, the chilling sign that his hamstring was bothering him. Prior to that, it was the infamous 2 of 11 showing he had as the Net, his last game for Brooklyn. He would need two weeks off after that setback, before making his Philadelphia debut.
In short, if Harden only scores two field goals in a game, something is wrong. James dusted himself off and dropped 23 points and 17 cents in a Game 1 win over the Wizards. But with Joel Embiid out of the line-up, his workload was at an all-time high, and some of us were on high alert for possible injury setbacks.
Now, Harden is set to miss about a month after spraining his right foot on that drive, after colliding with a defender. The sudden impact on the left side, I guess, must have put a bit more weight on that right foot:
Harden seemed more affected by the collision than the sprain at first. He was seen grabbing and flexing the snapped knee. He clearly had no idea how bad the foot problem was at first. He kept playing, eventually taking a break, then was later spotted limping towards the locker room in sneakers with no shoes on, but then came back and played some more, essentially logging over 30 minutes on a badly sprained tendon.
Then apparently at some point the team prepared for the possibility of it being really, really bad, and so they felt a certain relief that it was only a one month issue, more or less:
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said James Harden’s injury was actually less serious than the team initially feared. “We just have to keep going through the things we’ve been through” to start the season.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) November 4, 2022
Harden snapped knees with a defender, and it could have happened if the Sixers had been more, more careful with him. It could have happened, for example, in his first minute of the whole season, whether in October or December. Some of these things are just random.
But as this team knows, simply being in the game at all times greatly increases a player’s chances for both Abnormal and Non-Abnormal events. Right Pascal Siakam?
And Tom Haberstroh once reminded us that fatigue is probably linked to serious injuries.
So I’m of the opinion that it was far too aggressive to let Harden stay atop the NBA total minutes leaders, consistently playing 37 minutes per game, especially in the face of one of the busiest schedules in the NBA (more games in fewer days than many) while Embiid was in and out of commission.
And knowing that he was already taking so much, it was very good too aggressive to allow him to return to a match to play on that seemingly sprained foot, having received all the attention in the locker room.
The team didn’t yet have the MRI results when they made the decision to let him return to play. But it’s just not a smart risk to take in early November.
Few doctors could look us in the eye and promise that he didn’t exacerbate that problem by ending the game with a sprain. It is extremely rare for Harden to receive medical treatment in the locker room for an illness. The team had all the information they needed to make the most responsible decision and call her night early and wait for the MRI.
I tweeted this take:
Sixers knew Harden was coming back from a 2 season soft tissue issue, knew Embiid was in and out of the lineup. And still dialed James Harden’s minutes full throttle like he was 25. It’s not hindsight or biased results. It’s the basic load management they needed. https://t.co/79dwX8JObS
— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 3, 2022
And our homie TrillBroDude from Pod “You know the ball” made this very fair point, which Harden himself, can just push to play, no matter what, and the team can feel like part of it is out of his hands:
I understand but Harden plays so many minutes every year. Star players are almost always going to dictate how much they play. I don’t think Harden would have listened to anyone if they told him to play fewer minutes. https://t.co/56Bw8UFMfa
— Subscribe to the Patreon You Know Ball (@TrillBroDude) November 3, 2022
Even if this approach does not work…
‘he plays so many minutes every year’ – that’s why he hasn’t been healthy for three years
— Greg Dennis (@TheRealGD) November 3, 2022
After all, Harden negotiated his deal to have a player option next summer. He doesn’t have to stay in Philadelphia. So they might not want to play with him a lot. If he says he plays, maybe they let him play. I understand this part. A medically cleared player who wants to play deserves to make the most calls. And again, it’s worth pointing out that he hit his legs and made a spill, that can happen on any game, no matter how conservative a team may choose to be.
Still, some responsibility must rest with all parties here – Harden, the front office, the coaches and the coaching staff. If you try as hard as you can to convince him to take a day off, stay fresh for April, and he flat out refuses, the coaching staff can at least watch his minutes like they have Embiid, and the coaches can pushing to keep him out of games in November if they think he needs an MRI they’ll be afraid to sideline him for a month.
Doc Rivers reiterates that Joel Embiid will be reduced by a few minutes at this time. He thought Embiid had more energy in the last game.
— Paul Hudrick (@PaulHudrick) October 24, 2022
Everything is a game of probabilities. Just because you can eat the perfect diet, stay fit and drop dead, just because you can smoke two packs a day and live to be 100 doesn’t mean it’s pointless to bet on the health and exercise as much as possible. The presence of chance does not mean that everything is random. This is an easy truth to forget sometimes.
I think the Sixers should have taken a different approach. And I hope they will be more careful in the future; both with the guys now invited to take more without The Beard, and once he’s back there.
Now players like PJ Tucker and Joel Embiid will have to take over. And they may need more minutes and be less likely to take a day off themselves. It is a risk. Tucker is 37 and Embiid is in poor health. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris are two guys we tend not to worry about, but their workloads have been immense and should continue to be. That’s another. Maybe it can be Maxey All-Star season, and key players can speed up development.
We talked about some of those things in the opening minutes of the “Talking About Podcast” after the team’s second straight L on Friday night.
“The way we see it, we have the next two days off, practice, and now we can step up, get it back,” head coach Doc Rivers explained of Embiid, still struggling with a flu, and some lingering conditioning issues related to the plantar fasciitis he had over the summer. “Obviously we want to win the game, but we also have to think about the long game,” Rivers said.
“Wind. Wind and foot, but above all wind.
-That was Doc Rivers’ response to the question of what exactly is the reason they’ll be taking a cautious approach to Joel Embiid’s minutes when he returns from the flu. h/t @JGrieb10
— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) November 5, 2022
In a way, they were all lucky. The sky does not fall. Harden will be back. And then they’ll have a third chance (counting how hard they pushed him last March, after the trade) to be at least as conservative with his workload as they would be an MVP candidate with a long history. of injuries.
The Nets once took a very cautious approach to Kevin Durant’s return to play program, while having Harden carry the load while Kyrie Irving was also out. The Sixers appeared to take a cautious approach to Embiid this year, relying on The Beard as well. It’s time to take the same kind of approach with Harden that teams have with a KD or a Joel. Treat this man like he’s the franchise and not a regular season inning eater.
They will have a third chance, but maybe not a fourth.
Oh, and if you’re James Harden reading this, and have everything to say…your former teammate Kevin Durant starred in half of regular season games in 2020-21, but was widely considered the best player in the world after that season’s playoffs. Nobody will care what you do in this regular season. But if you won a ring, you’d probably go from “greatest player never to win one” with Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash and Chuck, to that all-time top 15-20, with D-Wade and co. . Not to mention, maybe a new $200 million contract.