After a slower-than-expected start, James Harden is once again producing like an offensive superstar. But are the big minutes and heavy demands the Houston Rockets are placing on him coming at too great a cost?
Harden hasn't appeared worse for wear recently. He came to life with the new year, putting together a sterling string of games reminiscent of stretches he had during his breakout 2012-13 campaign. In Houston's last three contests, he's been remarkable, becoming the first Rocket to log at least 37 points in three straight games since Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1994-95 season, per ESPN Stats & Info.
You can see the breakdown of his terrific run below:
I heard James Harden has been playing well lately. pic.twitter.com/CVz0z9dPGJ— The Traveling Crab (@crabdribbles) January 9, 2014
Overall, Harden's numbers are inching closer to last year's marks. The only statistical category lagging behind is his three-point shooting, which remains at a curiously low 32 percent. Despite a bothersome ankle injury, the Beard is logging playing time like crazy, including totals of 39, 44 and 38 minutes in the aforementioned three-game span.
This is a trend the Rockets don't seem intent on breaking.
Anecdotally, you'd suspect Harden's production to suffer because of fatigue. And it's easy to point to his declining outside shot as a sign of tired legs. You might also cite the slight dip in his free-throw attempts per game this year as further evidence. After all, it stands to reason that low energy might make him less aggressive and more willing to fire up perimeter shots.
Then there's Harden's defense, the ineptitude of which has become officially meme-worthy.
It's hard to ignore the way he refuses to get into a defensive stance, gets obliterated by screens he should see coming and generally finds himself a step or three away from proper help position.
At the same time, the flak Harden's getting for his defense—whether it's fatigue-related or not—is really just part of the road to stardom. We love taking a guy who was a breakout story and subsequently finding flaws with his game after the honeymoon phase ends.
It happens to everybody.
Harden has never been an elite defender, and while it might be true that he's slacking off more lately because the Rockets demand so much of him on offense, it seems to be a trade-off they're willing to accept.
Besides, you have to look past the outside shot, free-throw-rate decline and defensive gag reel in answering questions about Harden's workload.
The truth, as validated by some statistical digging, is that there's no evidence Harden is wearing down during games.
In-game splits reveal that Harden actually plays his best in the fourth quarter. He hits 51.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and exchanges long-range heaves for his highest free-throw rate of any period. If anything, there's a case to be made that Harden saves up energy for the decisive final stanza of each contest.
If you want to criticize him, criticize him for that.
But there's little to indicate that he's too tired to finish games effectively. Quite the opposite, actually.
Harden's average of 7.7 points per fourth quarter is easily his best of any period, ranking second in the league to Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry, per NBA.com. It's also worth mentioning that Harden pairs volume with efficiency in those fourth quarters. Check out how his numbers stack up against Curry, who's pretty much the NBA's poster boy for shooting accuracy:
I'd call that a favorable comparison, wouldn't you?
It's important to mention here that Houston's offense basically devolves into a series of Harden isolations when transition opportunities dry up down the stretch. Head coach Kevin McHale doesn't seem willing to install many sets or employ an equal-opportunity offense for the late stages of close contests, which has been something of a problem for the Rockets.
That's not Harden's fault, though, and he's been remarkably effective in situations (isolation sets, shots off the dribble, etc.) that don't typically produce efficient results.
Harden has been productive when it's mattered most, but there are questions about whether or not using him as the sole source of offense is a smart long-term plan.
Anyway, the point is that Harden's not running out of steam at the end of games—at least not in any statistically obvious way.
Clearly, he can handle a heavy load. Perhaps the real question is: Should he?
We know we're not dealing with an issue of physical fatigue when it comes to the demands placed on Harden. The problem may actually be much bigger than that.
Harden might simply be more of a one-dimensional scorer than an all-around star. If that's the case, his defensive lapses make a lot more sense. It's not that he's too tired to clamp down on D; it's that he's just not a defensive player.
When you watch Harden struggle on defense, he's not bent over gasping for air. What he's doing is closer to daydreaming. You could try to argue that he's mentally disengaged because he's worn out, but because we know he cranks up his offensive focus when games get tight, it doesn't seem like fatigue is the issue.
Tired and lazy are two different things.
Perhaps Harden suffers more from the latter than the former. One thing's for sure, though: We don't have to ask these questions about the league's truly elite stars.
Think about it: We don't often wonder if the Miami Heat ask too much of LeBron James, or if the Oklahoma City Thunder are trying to squeeze too much out of Kevin Durant. Really, we don't even question whether or not the Indiana Pacers' demands are too great for Paul George.
That's because those guys are bona fide superstars on on offense and defense. They've proved they can do everything their teams require—and more. It's impossible to ask "too much" of guys like them because their desire to dominate the game on both ends is unquenchable.
The fact that we're wondering whether Harden is being too greatly strained says a lot about how he stacks up against the league's best players.
He's a brilliant scorer, essentially unstoppable in the open court and capable of getting to the foul line like few others. His overall numbers are gradually falling in line with last year's averages, and we can't reliably point to less than half a season of data to declare his three-point stroke is broken.
There's not really a doubt that Harden is able to stand up to heavy minutes. What we should be skeptical about, though, is whether or not he's willing to do more than he's already doing.
Harden is a notch beneath the league's top tier, largely because he doesn't seem interested in defending consistently. Until he commits to expending his energy on both ends, his Houston Rockets will also reside just a hair below the league's elite teams.