James Harden may have missed a month of action but he is still playing a lot of basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers. He leads not just the Sixers in minutes per game but the entire NBA. It was an eye-popping trend for the 33-year-old before he injured his foot and missed a month of action. It still remains.

Whether the tendon strain in his right foot, which he suffered in early November, was caused directly by overplaying isn’t clear or worth speculating on, especially now that he’s back and looks mostly good. Still, the fact of the matter is that Harden has already sustained an injury that kept him out for a while and is still surpassing every other star, young or old, in minutes just one season after a depleted hamstring hampered him.

With an average of 37.6 minutes per game across his 16 games this season, James Harden leads the NBA (though he hasn’t played enough total games to officially qualify). On the leaderboard, his closest peer that is at least as old as him is Kevin Durant, who ties for sixth-most with 36.5 minutes.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers planned to institute a minutes restriction for Harden in his return from injury. Instead, Harden played 38 minutes in an overtime loss and called the situation “weird” after the game. Rivers maintains that Harden’s heavy doses of playing time are not concerning, saying before the Sixers’ win over the Detroit Pistons (which featured only 33 James Harden minutes) that he is “not worried at all.”

“It’s early in the year. I’ll guarantee by the end of the year, you’ll look at his numbers and they’ll look great,” Rivers said. “It’s a whole year. That’s why we can’t overdo things when guys have a three-week spike in minutes and all of a sudden, we’re overreacting to that. We’ve been low on guards and so, guys have to play minutes. And James is one of those guys that can handle minutes but by end of the year, his minutes will be down.”

In fairness to Rivers, Harden’s playmaking was sorely missed when he was out. The Sixers’ offense has looked much better with him back in the lineup, both in the halfcourt and in transition. He deserves a lot of minutes, no doubt. But he also deserves to be protected enough to perform at his best in the postseason. Just last season, Philly saw what it looks like when he isn’t at his best during the portion of the NBA season he has historically struggled in.

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Rivers added that when Tyrese Maxey comes back from his foot injury — though there’s not much clarity on when that will be — Harden’s minutes will be able to gradually decline. However, he ruled out the likelihood of using injury management days for Harden like the Sixers did last year. He explained that they utilized them last season for conditioning purposes.

Although Harden is looking good in the games following his injury and was very good prior to it, the Sixers run the risk of burning him out before the playoffs. It’s one that they are clearly willing to take, at least to a certain degree. “There’s things on our checklist. I can tell you that’s not one of them. We’re not concerned with that,” Doc Rivers said about his minutes.

Seeing what Harden’s minutes look like when Maxey comes back will be more revealing. Letting the youngster take on more minutes once he is physically capable will be key to preserving Harden for the games that actually matter for the Sixers. Everyone even remotely familiar with the team knows what’s at stake this upcoming spring.

The Sixers don’t have another playmaker like Harden but have enough guards — namely Shake Milton as a lead ball-handler — to get him a little more rest, even with Maxey out. They also have Joel Embiid, whose development as a playmaker can take some of the pressure off of Harden. By no means does Harden have to lead the league in minutes, and nor should he.

Although the Sixers rely on James Harden heavily, they have to pace themselves in how they use him.