Why James Harden Should Rest Down The Stretch of the Season
The Houston Rockets came up short in Tuesday night’s showdown against the Golden State Warriors, falling by a score of 113-106. The Rockets made a charge after falling behind early, but never led in their second consecutive defeat at the hands of the two-time defending Western Conference champs.
Regardless, the Rockets have been one of the league’s biggest surprises this season, and currently sit in the No. 3 spot in the conference with a record of 51-23. James Harden has established himself as perhaps the frontrunner to win the league’s MVP award, as he’s averaging better than 29 points per game in addition to leading the league in assists (11.4 per game).
Harden is Playing Hurt
Unfortunately, Harden hasn’t quite been himself of late. He made just five of his 20 shots against Golden State, including 1-for-9 from three-point range. He reportedly jammed his left wrist in a game against the Nuggets last week, and the injury has negatively affected his shooting stroke ever since.
On one hand, this isn’t the greatest time for Houston’s lone superstar to come up with an injury. The playoffs are right around the corner, and they’d be lucky to even get out of the first round if Harden were to be sidelined. Obviously, nobody else on the roster is capable of facilitating and scoring the way he does.
On the flip side, there is a bit of a buffer. The Rockets still have eight regular season games remaining with the season finale coming up on April 12th against Minnesota. The Rockets literally have nothing left to play for during the regular season. Houston is currently 6.5 games behind the Spurs for the No. 2 seed and six games up on the Jazz, who are currently fourth. With so few games left, the Rockets are all but assured of going into the playoffs as the No. 3 team in the west.
So, with the remaining games meaning very little, why doesn’t Harden use the time wisely and just rest?
What About MVP?
Of course, there’s more at stake than just a title for Harden right now. He really, really wants that MVP award. He and ex-teammate Russell Westbrook have been neck-and-neck in this race all year long, and Harden has no intentions of sitting out and letting Westbrook monopolize the headlines for the next few weeks. We haven’t even mentioned the strong late-season surge of Kawhi Leonard, who looks like a clear-cut No. 3 behind those two and ahead of LeBron James.
This is the closest MVP race we’ve seen in quite some time, and Harden missing games down-the-stretch of the season may cost him in the eyes of some of the voters. As a result, he’s going to keep playing. When asked after the Warriors game what his plan is, he responded,
Harden has also been quite vocal about his lack of interest in sitting out games in order to rest. With guys like LeBron James getting scrutinized for resting in key games down the stretch, Harden has been adamant that he would never do such a thing. He sees it as “leaving your teammates out there to dry.”
The thing is, Harden really doesn’t have anything left to prove. People will continue to be in awe of Westbrook, especially considering he’s almost certainly going to finish the season averaging a triple-double. Harden can’t match that, but his accomplishments this season speak for themselves.
What else can he do to help his chances further? At this point, voters have likely already made up their minds regarding which player is the MVP. A couple of triple-doubles in meaningless games against the Kings or Suns in the season’s latter stages won’t really put him over the top.
Refusal to Rest Could Hurt Rockets
As noble a sentiment as this is, Harden simply wouldn’t be sitting out games to recharge the batteries at this point. He is nursing a legitimate injury to his shooting hand. If he’s going to play through the injury without giving it time to properly heal, he’s actively harming the Rockets’ chances in the end.
We don’t know if Harden’s injury can be made worse by continuing to play through it, but the rigors of playing basketball surely can’t be helpful to the healing process. If his stubborn refusal to sit out in order to heal up results in his subpar play costing the Rockets playoff games, how is that helpful?
On the flip side, chastising Harden for chasing an individual accolade is also foolish. He was snubbed from all three All-NBA squads a season ago after the Rockets languished through a miserably disappointing season. We all know that players are compared with one another based on individual awards and championships. Having the opportunity to add an MVP trophy to your legacy is a big deal to any player, and Harden’s clearly no exception.
Playoffs Are a Different Story
Harden’s desire to play out the season should not be viewed as him prioritizing himself over the Rockets’ success, but it’ll be a tough pill for Rockets fans to swallow if this injury winds up hurting the team’s performance once the playoffs roll around. Shooting 5-for-20 isn’t going to cut it in the postseason.
If the Rockets have any hope whatsoever of dethroning Golden State (or San Antonio, for that matter), Harden is going to need to be at his best at all times. He’s continuing to rack up the triple-doubles in spite of the wrist problem, but he’s going to be leaned upon to take big shots in crucial moments. If he doesn’t have confidence that he can make them because of the balky wrist, Houston is going to be in serious trouble.
Daryl Morey has done an excellent job in surrounding Harden with all the shooters he could ever want, but Harden holds the keys to the Ferrari. As we saw Tuesday night, the Rockets can’t hang with a team with as much firepower as the Warriors if he’s not at full strength.
This has been the best season of Harden’s career by a wide margin, and he’s gone a long way in terms of revamping his image after the aforementioned lackluster 2015-16 campaign.