The biggest confession of Kevin Durant’s career went largely overlooked this week.
When the basketball world began dissecting his decision to pull out of the 2014 FIBA World Cup, debating whether it was due to Paul George’s gruesome injury, pressure from a potential sponsor or pure disinterest, they missed the meat of the man’s announcement.
That’s essentially what Durant told the world in a written statement on Thursday.
It was the first time Durant has publicly conceded that his mind, body and soul no longer could subscribe to ultra-effective marketing slogan he had helped create: “Basketball Never Stops.”
The admission made waves only because of what it means to USA Basketball this summer. Overshadowed is what it will mean for the Thunder next season.
After that carefully-crafted, 97-word statement, the Thunder seemingly has no choice but to better manage its biggest star’s minutes.
Last season, Durant led all players in total minutes in both the regular season (3,122) and playoffs (815). It was the third time in the past five seasons that Durant led the league in total minutes played. That’s one more year than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have combined to lead the league in minutes. James owns both of that group’s two instances.
And that’s only a snapshot of what has been Durant’s workload.
No player has logged more combined regular season and playoff minutes over the past three seasons than Durant, who has played 10,924 minutes. James, even with three straight trips to the NBA Finals in that window, sits in second with 10,811.
Durant’s 15,064 minutes over the past five regular seasons, meanwhile, also pace all players and are 930 more than James, who is No. 2 on that list. Durant has gotten there by tallying at least 3,000 minutes in four of the past five regular seasons. The lone exception was the 66-game lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Still, his 38.6-minute average in that season was on par with where his minutes per game have come in over the past two seasons.
In fact, Durant hasn’t averaged less than 38.5 minutes since his rookie year. His durability has been admirable, but coupled with such a high nightly minute count it has compounded the problem and denied Durant of ample in-season rest. Durant has played in 388 of a possible 394 regular season games over the past five seasons.
So what does it all mean?
Two chief connections can be made, neither of which bodes well for the Thunder.
First, no player in the past 10 years has won a championship in the same season in which he amassed at least 3,000 minutes. Ben Wallace with Detroit in 2004 was the last player to do so. Durant is quickly becoming the poster child for this increasingly worrisome watermark. Second, not since Norm Nixon with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980 has a player from a championship team led the league in minutes in the regular season. Only three other players have ever done it: Jack George in 1956, Bill Russell in 1959 and again in 1965 and Wilt Chamberlain in 1967.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said last October that he likes to keep Durant’s minutes between 38 and 40. That means, barring a shift in strategy, that Durant will annually top the 3,000-minute plateau — and challenge for the league lead — if he appears in at least 79 games, something he’s done in five of the six seasons in which he’s played an 82-game schedule.
But Brooks has defended Durant’s mounting minutes by pointing to the game’s other greats, players who history shows have had similar workloads.
With 20,717 total minutes, Durant ranks 17th in minutes played among players in their first seven seasons. He’s logged the eighth most among seven-year veterans who made their debut after 1980. The seven ahead of him are James, Larry Bird, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Michael Finley, Andre Iguodala and Antoine Walker.
In terms of average, Durant’s 38.2 minutes per game ranks 10th among players in their first seven seasons since 1980. Among that group, Allen Iverson tops the list with a 41.3-minute average over that span. James is second at 40.3 minutes per game over his first seven seasons.
But what distinguishes Durant from many in that group is postseason success. More games equal more minutes and more minutes equate to more mileage. Durant played in the second-most regular season games (542) among that group and appeared in the second-most playoff games (73) over that span. Five players ahead of Durant, by comparison, Finley, Walker, Steve Francis, Juwan Howard and Elton Brand, combined to appear in just one more playoff game than Durant over their first seven seasons.
The playing time of that bunch in their eighth, ninth and 10th seasons suggests we could begin to see a dip in Durant’s minutes starting next season. Of the nine players since 1980 who averaged more minutes than Durant over their first seven seasons only two, Iverson and Michael Jordan, saw an increase in their average in the subsequent three seasons. The other seven ranged from Tim Duncan’s 34.5 average to James’ 38.1 average.
For several years now, Brooks and his staff have made a concerted effort to closely monitor and manage practices, game day shootarounds and off days in an attempt to get Durant much-needed rest. Last season, however, Durant was thrust into more playing time when Russell Westbrook missed 36 games because of multiple knee surgeries. Still, there were times when the line between necessary and excessive was blurred.
Take for example the final three games of the regular season. Durant logged 42 minutes at Indiana, 43 minutes at New Orleans and 45 minutes against Detroit. The Thunder went 1-2 in those contests despite Durant’s heavy lifting.
Then there was the 2012-13 campaign, a season in which the Thunder won 60 games and posted a league-best 9.2 point differential. Durant still averaged 38.5 minutes. He played at least 40 minutes 35 times.
“As we go forward there’s no question that’s something we want to look at and understand,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said about Durant’s minutes at the end of the season. “Not only for the long term, but to also make sure we are getting the most out of the minutes that are played during one particular game or another…I can’t tell you what comes of it.”
A healthy Westbrook and a startling admission of fatigue by Durant should be all the Thunder needs to start getting Durant’s minutes down next season.