HOUSTON -- James Harden calls the basketball court his happy place. And checking on the number of minutes that he has played, that would be true.
Over the past two seasons, no NBA player has played more minutes than Harden, the Houston Rockets’ star guard. He has played 6,106 minutes, with his teammate, Trevor Ariza, second with 5,789.
Harden (37.5) is just behind Chicago’s Jimmy Butler (37.8) in minutes per game the past two seasons. Given his expanded role as the full-time point guard, Harden’s minutes shouldn’t decrease anytime soon.
“We’ll see and take it game by game,” Harden said. “Some games I’ll play more [minutes] than others. I love being on that basketball court -- this is my happy place. If I have to play 40 a night or down to 30-35 [minutes], it depends on the game. It’s whatever is good for the team.”
Harden is good for the Rockets. New coach Mike D’Antoni will let the shooting guard become the full-time point guard this season, meaning he will be the ball handler the majority of the game. It’s hard to believe he can touch the ball more than he did last season. Harden led the team with a touch rate of 85.1 percent, which also led shooting guards in the NBA.
John Wall led the league in touch rate at 98.7.
So in theory, if Harden is touching the ball more, which should be the case this season, his minutes most likely will continue to be in the upper 30s per night.
“I bet there’s not one coach that comes here and says, ‘Yeah, I want to keep his minutes down,’" D’Antoni said. “Then you want to win, and then it’s a little bit of a tussle. He’s going to play his minutes. I would love to keep it down and under control, and I’ll work with James and how he feels, and I think we both have goals of limiting it a little bit more. But he’s going to play a lot of minutes again. Hopefully we can win some games, and it’s the best time where you can rest guys -- Steph Curry rests in the fourth quarter [of some games]. That would be nice.”
To sit Harden in the fourth quarter of games, the Rockets need to maintain a huge lead, something that wasn’t the case in quite a few games last season.
With a new up-tempo offense, featuring more shooters, Harden has the ability to help the Rockets get big leads. If the new shooters, such as Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, are able to take the scoring load off Harden, the amount of energy needed to run the offense might not be a burden.
Of course, Harden will have another ball handler on the floor in Patrick Beverley, who should alleviate some pressure off him if defenses double him at half court, something that occurred numerous times last season.
“Playmaker is the point guard, point guard makes the plays, and that’s the scoring,” Harden said. “We have a lot more shooters on the team now, and there’s a lot more spacing involved that creates a lot more layups and shots for our team, and that’s what we’re trying to do and get to.”
Two seasons ago when the Rockets reached the Western Conference finals before losing to Golden State, Harden averaged 38.6 minutes per game in the postseason. When the season was over, Harden discussed how the heavy minutes wore him down, especially when he brought the ball up the court. The Rockets vowed to limit his ballhandling duties at the shooting guard spot, by adding Ty Lawson as another ball handler/creator.
It didn’t work as the Rockets started the season 0-3, eventually leading to coach Kevin McHale's dismissal and Harden carrying a heavy workload again. When the season ended, Harden led the league in total minutes at 3,125 and minutes per game, with 38.1.
The Rockets are now embracing Harden’s heavy minutes, because in order to succeed in the talent-heavy West, they need him in his happy place.
“You can do what San Antonio does [in giving veteran players rest days], but he is 27, in the prime of his career,” D’Antoni said. “He’s strong, and he can handle a lot of minutes. You never know. You try to hit it right in the middle, and we’ll try and do that.”
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