The James Harden minutes issue

James Harden ranks first in the league in minutes per game and second in points per game but he's struggling on defense. Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

HOUSTON -- James Harden is being pushed to the limit again.

Last season, Harden led the Houston Rockets in minutes played and emerged as their best player, resulting in a second-place finish to Stephen Curry in the MVP vote.

The players' vote gave the MVP award to Harden. It was well deserved.

This year, Harden's minutes are up, and while his scoring average remains high, his defensive ratings are poor. Harden's team started the season 0-3, fired its coach and continues to play under .500.

Harden, who is second in the NBA at 29.8 points per game, is asking for his playing minutes to be reduced. He's currently at a league-high 39.7 per game.

The burden on Harden will eventually catch up to him unless somebody, Dwight Howard or Trevor Ariza perhaps, takes the load off him.

"I mean, 40 a night is pretty tough, especially if you want to be efficient on both ends of the floor," Harden said before the Rockets' game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night. "We got to figure out how to get guys more minutes and be more effective on the court so as a team we can get better."

The Rockets are not getting better, despite a coaching change, subtle changes to the offensive scheme and a renewed emphasis on effort. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been unable to settle on a consistent rotation.

The Rockets are falling behind in the West, but Harden said he believes things will get better.

"We're trying to find it," he said. "And we're going to."

The heavy minutes are also affecting Harden's defense. He was a bad defensive player two seasons ago, with YouTube videos splashed all over the place showing him getting beaten on that end.

Last season, Harden improved, not to the point where he should have been named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team, but enough where some advanced statistics made a case for him.

It seems now, Harden has regressed.

Too many times he cheats in the paint only to rush over to the corner, where an open man shoots a jumper. Along the perimeter, Harden gets beaten off the dribble, and on Monday in Auburn Hills, Michigan, where the Pistons beat the Rockets, there's video of him failing to box out a charging player who scores on a putback layup.

Harden says the heavy minutes are to blame for his struggling defense.

"Playing that amount of minutes, you're going to have some lapses, some mistakes," Harden said. "I try to not worry about them. I try to give my all on both ends of the floor and live with the results."

Harden's defensive rating is 108 per 100 possessions, which is more than last year's 103 and slightly more than the 107 in the 2013-14 season.

His defensive box plus/minus is minus-2.3; last year it was 1.0, and two seasons ago it was minus-0.5.

"Who do you know spends 40 minutes at a high level on both ends of the floor nowadays?" Harden said.

The three players below come close to that description:

  • Russell Westbrook, averaging 34.5 minutes per game, has a defensive rating of 101 and a defensive box plus/minus of 1.0.

  • LeBron James, he of the 36.5 minutes-per-game average, has a defensive rating of 100 and a defensive box plus/minus of 0.9.

  • Kawhi Leonard, who averages 34.7 minutes per game, has a defensive rating of 92 and a defensive box plus/minus of 2.1.

One of the players just behind Harden in minutes per game, Damian Lillard at 36.4, has a defensive rating of 107 and defensive box plus/minus of minus-2.8.

It's doubtful Harden wants to be compared to Lillard; he would rather see his numbers and game compared to Westbrook, James and even Leonard.

At some point the minutes will wear Harden down, and if somebody else doesn't step up for the Rockets, their playoff dreams will die when the regular season ends.

"To be honest, the entire West isn't really playing well," Harden said. "Only team playing well is the Warriors. It's on our side, and we got to find a way to come together to get everybody more aggressive on both ends of the floor and get our chemistry right."