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Chris Paul’s Presence Has Restructured James Harden’s Minutes

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James Harden has been taking a breather in the first quarter and his minutes are at a low since coming to Houston.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets
Chris Paul’s arrival in Houston has James Harden’s minutes at the lowest level since joining Houston.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

This is a real sentence: The Houston Rockets’ blistering 14 game win streak has contributed to the NBA’s best record, 25-4, while James Harden’s workload is at its lowest level since landing in Houston.

Harden is averaging 35.8 minutes through 29 games while exploring new levels of efficiency with a league best 31.3 points per game paired with 9 assists. Over six seasons in Houston this is a high in points (and second best assist average) and a low in minutes.

James Harden’s MPG & PPG in Houston

Season Min Per Game PT Per Game
Season Min Per Game PT Per Game
2017-2018 35.8 31.3
2016-2017 36.4 29.1
2015-2016 38.1 29
2014-2015 36.8 27.4
2013-2014 38 25.4
2012-2013 38.3 25.9

The lower workload and increased efficiency from the MVP front-runner is inextricably linked to the presence of Chris Paul, who just netted his own Western Conference Player of the Week Award.

Paul’s mere presence has restructured Harden’s workload (which I’ve been breathlessly clamoring for over the years). The Beard is notoriously devout in his desire to stay on the court for the entire first quarter. In interviews Harden has always said playing the entire quarter helps him find a rhythm and get his sea legs each night.

With Paul on the team Harden has relented and is taking a seat in the first frame.

Over 81 games last season Harden played every second of the first quarter 64 times, taking a seat in the first during 17 games. His average substitution over all games played came with 18 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Harden stuck to his guns when Paul was hurt. He played the entire first frame in all but one of the games without CP3.

Since Paul’s return Harden took a first quarter seat in 10 of Houston’s 14 wins. His average clock out time in the wins has been with 1:13 seconds remaining. In 9 of the 10 clock outs Harden sat for Paul.

During the season Harden has posted an average of 11.3 minutes per first quarter. That’s the same as his 2013-2014 season. It’s an average second to the J.B. Bickerstaff coached 2015-2016 season where Harden averaged 10.3 points per first quarter.

In the games since Paul’s return Harden is averaging 10.7 minutes per first quarter. A reduction from his desired average of 12 minutes per first quarter.

The new strategy involves Paul taking a seat after five minutes of game time and swapping out for Harden with two-and-a-half minutes or less on the clock. This includes a 25-0 run the Rockets made against Charlotte with Chris Paul marshaling the second unit while Harden rested.

The ability for Paul to carve apart second units has created rest for Harden in two respects. It eliminates the offensive panic Houston succumbed to in Harden’s absence. The days of the Rockets second unit stumbling to recreate playable Moreyball are gone.

The tangential result of Paul’s second unit destruction is simple... blowouts.

Harden is playing just 6.9 minutes per fourth quarter this season. His lowest since he joined the Rockets and slightly edging last year. It’s easy to do when you’re blasting teams like the Rockets are. In past seasons Houston let inferior opponents hang around until the closing minutes, or minute. The result... Harden averaged 9 minutes per fourth quarter in both 2015-2016 and 2013-2014.

Take a peek at the numbers and it’s clear, the better the Rockets are as a team the less Harden plays in the fourth.

James Harden’s Career Minutes By Quarter

Q1 Avg Q2 Avg Q3 Avg Q4 Avg Season Avg
Q1 Avg Q2 Avg Q3 Avg Q4 Avg Season Avg
11.3 7.2 11.1 6.9 35.8
11.7 6.6 11.6 7 36.4
10.3 8.1 11 9 38.1
11.5 7.3 11.3 7.5 36.8
11.3 8 11.4 9 38
11.5 7.8 11.4 8.7 38.3

All of this comes back to a central theme... The Rockets are the Western Conference’s clear counterweight to the Golden State Warriors. Making the finals will mean proving it in the playoffs. Proving it in the playoffs will require a fresher James Harden then Houston has seen in the past two postseasons.