How Is James Harden So Durable?
In case you've been living under a rock, the big conversation revolving around the NBA lately involves resting players, particularly superstars, in preparation for the playoffs. In the last few days, the subject has become even more intriguing.
In a memo sent to team owners on Monday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver stated that resting players is "an extremely significant issue for our league."
This all comes on the back of two straight Saturday primetime games sans multiple superstars. In last week's nationally-televised game, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs combined to have five key players riding the bench. Sure, a couple of those players were dealing with injuries, but when the Cleveland Cavaliers rested LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in a nationally-televised road game against the Los Angeles Clippers this past weekend, this issue rose to the top of the media pile for all sports, not just the NBA.
As you can imagine, a number of players have weighed in through various outlets. One of those is the Houston Rockets' James Harden, who said "I'll rest when I'm done" in response to a question posed to him about it.
To say there's something to Harden's comments is an understatement -- and no, I'm not talking about the issue itself. Not all players have the same mindset, but that just speaks to Harden's amazing ability to shoulder the offensive load, play big minutes and remain healthy in today's NBA.
This year, the Beard leads the league in minutes played (2,592) through 70-plus games, and he's only one of three players to log more than 2,500 minutes (according to Basketball Reference). What's impressive is that Harden is the only one that's older than 22 years old (he's 27). Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins have accomplished this at the tender ages of 21 and 22 years old, respectively.
For Mr. Harden, it's business as usual -- he led the league in minutes (3,125) and minutes per game (38.1) last year. And, while his nightly minutes have dropped to 36.5 per game, he's still seventh in the league in that category.
When we talk about games, it's the same thing. So far this year (knock on wood), Harden has played in all 71 games -- he's only one of eight players to do that. Among them, just he and teammate Trevor Ariza have started every contest while logging 2,000-plus minutes. As such, the durable guard will be looking to make it consecutive seasons with 82 starts.
For the totality of Harden's career, he has been this kind of Mr. Reliable. In seven-plus seasons, he's played in 605 of 629 possible games. For comparison's sake, take a look at how that matches up with former teammates and fellow All-Stars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
|Player||Games Played||Total Possible Games||% of Games Played|
This isn't to say that Westbrook and Durant aren't durable in their own right, but Harden is on an another level as an NBA iron man.
Return on Investment
For more context, take a look at how that's played out in terms of dollar signs over the course of their respective careers. Using total career earnings divided by games played, we can find each player's salary per games played.
From the point of view from a player, Harden has to be thinking he's getting ripped off. But, from the Rockets' point of view, they're getting a lot of bang (or at least games) for their buck.
While Durant has earned the most ($132.2 million according to Spotrac) over his nine-plus seasons, he's also played the fewest percentage of possible games. That's how he's earned over $42,000 more per game than Harden. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Westbrook, who has one more season and $14 million more in career earnings ($102.7 million) in relation to his former teammate ($88.6 million).
It'll be interesting to see how many games each of the three finish with this year considering they are each playing on the same max salary ($26,540,100) and are likely bound for the Western Conference playoffs.
Preserve and Produce
How precisely does Harden provide his team with such a valuable return on investment? It all boils down to three things: stamina, intelligence and efficiency.
As we've seen, he has the ability to play every game and handle big minutes throughout. Taking it one step further, he has also managed a heavy workload in terms of both usage and distance traveled.
Sure, the Beard's usage rate of 34.2% is just fourth in the league, but according to NBA.com, the Rockets' point guard leads the Association with 99.5 total touches per game. He is tied with John Wall for the highest time of possession (8.9 minutes) per game and trails only Westbrook and Wall in frontcourt touches, with 79.0 a night.
Simultaneously, Harden ranks 16th in total distance traveled, according to NBA Stats. He has logged a total of 158.6 miles with 84.7 (or 53.4%) of them coming on the offensive end. To people's surprise, he's amassed almost as many -- 73.9 -- on the defense, too.
That's a lot of work for one guy, but he manages it well.
While tallying so many touches, Harden is more efficient than other players with similarly high usages. Of the 18 players with at least 80 touches per game, Harden is third in average seconds per touch (5.39), but he doesn't expend a lot of energy dribbling and moving. His 4.76 average dribbles per touch drops him down to ninth on the list. In doing so, he is sixth in points per touch (.295) among the qualified players.
Harden's intelligence and unconventional means of maneuvering allow for this type of efficient use of energy. While stationery, Harden is an expert at utilizing his pivot foot as well as the jab step and head fake. When on the move, he uses the euro-step as well as any player in the league, thereby avoiding unnecessary dribbles.
In either situation, he uses his skills to create rather than avoid contact. Most of the time, he's in control of whether he gets a foul call or not -- and a lot of the time he does. He trails only one other player in percentage of points from free throws (31.8%) and his 11.0 free throw attempts per game is first in the league.
Getting to the line and taking short breathers almost at will has to be an undersold advantage. It's not only an efficient use of possession time, but it also creates a type of fuel efficiency for Harden's body.
For those of you who don't know, nERD is our in-house metric (comparable to win shares) that measures a player's overall contributions throughout a season, based on efficiency. It tells us how many games above .500 a league-average team would be with that player as one of their starters.
Therefore, using this metric and distance traveled, we can find the amount of miles used to produce one game above .500, or in other words 1.0 nERD. By dividing miles traveled by nERD, we can find a player's miles per nERD (MPn). Of the top 10 players in our power rankings, here's how they compare to one another and where Harden ranks among them.
This table carries the provision that Durant has missed 11 games due to injury, but that's beside the point. Even then, Harden trails only two players in terms of miles needed to produce a single unit of nERD, or one game above .500. That is, despite a usage 6.6% higher than Durant's and 3.1% higher than Kawhi Leonard's.
The proof is in the pudding. Harden's balance of durability and elite play is sustainable only because he is both efficient and productive with his time and effort.