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Rockets restart player previews: James Harden

James Harden finally got the rest he needed.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

James Harden

History: You know the old adage: “Time heals all wounds.”

In sports, there are not a lot of things that time can’t fix. You currently in a shooting slump? Take some time off to clear your head. You have a bum ankle? Take some time to rest. Fatigued the amount of work you’ve been putting in? You need some time off.

Everyone benefits equally when given the same amount of time.

Yet, somehow, no one seems to benefit from time off more than James Harden.

Since the Houston Rockets discovered Harden would be the earth-shattering superstar that they hoped he would be back in 2012, he’s been running ragged. Each season that he’s been in Houston, he’s carried the team on his shoulders in an effort to bide time until Houston reeled in that second superstar.

That sentiment has never been more true than in the past four years with Mike D’Antoni taking over as head coach. Each of the past three seasons has landed Harden in the top 13 in all-time usage percentage, with him landing at No. 2 all-time last year with a usage percentage of 40.47%. Even when you throw in the fact that Harden averaged 36.8 minutes in 78 games last season, it still doesn’t describe quite the toll he took on his body in order to make the iso-ball work.

Look no further than this season when we saw the immense workload of a 36.41% usage rate (10th all-time) wear Harden down in the middle of a season. From mid-November until early January, Harden went on the best run of his career just to keep his team afloat while his running mate, Russell Westbrook, found his way back from injury and the rest of the team just found their way. But, immediately after that, Harden has struggled consistently for the past 27 games, averaging 29.3 points a game on only 39.4% shooting.

The criticism against James Harden, at least for the past few years, has been that his insistence on being a one-man show (not by his design) has worn him thin. Not only is he asked to put in a herculean effort each and every night of the regular season just to give the Rockets competitive seeding, but he’s asked to do even more in the playoffs when the lineups get shorter, the minutes get longer, and the defenses get much tougher.

Outlook: You’re either lying to yourself or don’t know basketball if don’t think rest plus Harden equals a dangerous thing for league.

The truth of the matter is that going through Harden, just like going through any superstar that can carry a team, is an effective game plan. The issue lies in the fact that Harden is expected to play 37 minutes in December just to beat the New Orleans Pelicans. But now you’re giving him three months off and only eight regular season games to get his hardwood legs back? That’s trouble.

Harden has made the most of this time too. A naturally stocky man, Harden has taken the opposite path of a lot of his colleagues and slimmed down a ton instead of bulking up.

While there may be a lot of doubters that this frame is the best one for Harden’s game — you have to be a strong man to go through what Harden goes through every night — athletes know what’s best for their body. If anything, agility and athleticism benefits Harden way more than bulking up just to take a pounding for no calls in the playoffs, and he knows that those whistles will eventually get swallowed.

There are still several more factors to Harden’s success, though. For his game itself, the most important has to be if Harden will look to shoot more mid-range jumpers. In January and March, Harden shot 35.5% and 37.4% from the field, respectively. In those two months, he shot a combined 74 mid-range shots/floaters while taking 189 three-pointers. Harden shot 26.4% from deep in those months. If the threes don’t fall for him, hopefully he will look elsewhere for points.

The biggest factor to Harden’s success will be how well Russell Westbrook performs. If Westbrook plays well, then a large amount of the pressure and workload is taken off of Harden. The last time we saw Westbrook, he was in the middle of the best and most efficient stretch of basketball in his life. With Westbrook dealing with the fierce uncertainty of contracting COVID-19, it’ll be a little bit longer before these two link up for practice.

Initially, there was a fear surrounding the return of Harden since both he and Westbrook didn’t travel with the team to Orlando, were then announced to be with the team in a few days, and then Westbrook revealed that he had contracted COVID-19. The speculation is that Harden fell ill to the virus too at some point, but there is nothing concrete to that claim.

Hopefully this video of Harden working out on Monday night is indication that he’s healthy and truly just waiting on his friend to break his ailment.

Fun fact: just as I was ending this piece, James Harden touched down in Orlando. The Beard is officially back, people.