James Harden got his lightest minutes load of the 2022-23 season Wednesday.
He played 32 minutes and 34 seconds in the Sixers’ uncomplicated win over the cellar-dwelling Pistons.
Even following a night where Harden could relax and enjoy the conclusion of a sixth straight victory from the bench, the 33-year-old leads the NBA with 37.6 minutes per game. In seven outings since returning from a 14-game absence because of a right foot tendon strain, he’s averaged 38.7.
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Sixers head coach Doc Rivers was asked the reasonable question pregame of whether he’s worried about Harden’s minutes.
“No, not worried at all,” Rivers said. “It’s early in the year. I’ll guarantee you, 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. You don’t. We’ve been low on guards, and so guys have to play minutes. And James is one of those guys that can handle minutes. But by the end of the year, his minutes will be down.”
It would indeed be surprising if Harden finishes the season averaging nearly 38 minutes per game. More bonus basketball than usual — a double-overtime loss in Houston and overtime wins over the Lakers and Raptors — has been a factor lately.
The Sixers have also been down a 22-year-old guard who’s always happy to play however much he’s asked. Rivers said Tyrese Maxey is “improving” but didn’t offer a timeline for his return from a left foot fracture. He agreed with the notion that having Maxey available should eventually lead to fewer Harden minutes.
“Yeah, slowly,” Rivers said. “Honestly, there’s things on our checklist, and I can tell you that’s not one of them. We’re not that concerned with that. But his minutes will go down slowly once all the guards are back.”
In Harden’s first season as a Sixer, Rivers took a more cautious public stance on his star guard’s health. At one stage in March, he acknowledged Harden was playing “too much” and said the Sixers were “very conscious of what’s going on with his hamstring.” After coming back from his left hamstring injury, Harden sat out three of the Sixers’ final 24 games.
Rivers indicated the Sixers now don’t view “injury management” nights for Harden as essential.
“Well, last year was different,” he said. “Last year was conditioning — completely different, hamstring issue. So this year is a completely different year.”
Rivers also suggested Harden’s diligence about his fitness while sidelined contributes to less overall concern about his health than last season. Work with resistance bands, on the treadmill and in the pool was part of the Sixers' rehab plan for Harden.
“I think he is healthy,” Rivers said of Harden, who’s posted 21.4 points, 10.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game. “He’s pretty healthy. I thought the key for James when he went out is he didn’t lose conditioning, and that would’ve been easy to do. And he did a great job of working on his conditioning still.”
After a 15-point, eight-assist Harden performance that included a few sharp driving layups, Joel Embiid noted the big picture.
“He was good,” Embiid said. “His burst — him going by guys, him making plays, pushing the ball. Defensively, he’s been good.
“It’s all about staying healthy, so just need to keep that going.”