Kevin Durant is potentially on his way to a fourth consecutive scoring title, something that would put his name along the likes of only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan.
But Durant has consistently sat atop the league in another statistical category during that time too: For the third time in four years, KD is on pace to lead the league in total minutes played.
Henry Abbott points out a fairly amazing stat in the video above: Since Michael Jordan, not a single player has won a championship playing 3,000 or more minutes in a season. Now, that’s one of those stats-in-a-vacuum things that seems like it really means something, while in fact, it probably actually does not. But it does at least bring forward a very legitimate question: Is Durant playing too many minutes this season?
It’s not even worth me asking KD if he thinks he’s playing too many minutes because even at the mention of that he’d probably punch me in the face. If Durant had it his way, he’d play 48 minutes every night, with a little postgame pickup to follow each game. And then maybe a game of 21 in his driveway when he got home.
But not only is Durant headed for his third 3,000-minute season, he’s headed for the most minutes he’s ever played in any single season of his career. This season, Durant (and Russell Westbrook) have only had three games each where they logged fewer than 30 minutes. Durant especially doesn’t just play a bunch of minutes; the minutes he logs basically count double. With the work he puts in defending, rebounding and then shouldering so much of the offensive load in the fourth quarter, he’s playing 40 supercharged minutes. It’s a lot different playing 38 minutes where you’re hovering around the 3-point line waiting on a kickout and playing 38 minutes where you’re the primary option.
In 2009-10, Durant played 3,239 minutes (first). In 2010-11, he played 3,038 (seventh). In 2011-12, 2,546 (first). This season, he’s on pace for 3,427. And again, those are loaded minutes, heavy minutes.
Something to keep in mind though: One reason Durant, and Westbrook, pile up the minutes is pretty simple and straightforward — they don’t miss games. Over the past four seasons, KD has missed a total of four games. Consider: LeBron missed four games last season, and had there been no lockout and he played all 82 games, he would’ve logged 3,075 minutes. (KD would’ve logged 3,165.) So add in a game or five of rest and/or injury, and Durant’s not on top in total minutes played every year.
Isn’t that a good thing though, that Durant doesn’t miss games? Durability and consistency is an amazing, underrated player trait. You want your best players to play, not sit. Duh. Gregg Popovich obviously doesn’t always employ that strategy, but comparing the Thunder’s and Spurs’ roster situations is like comparing The Who to Jay-Z. Entirely different circumstances, not at all the same. What Pop does for the Spurs is because he’s trying to manage an aged, veteran roster. Brooks has the the young legs of a team almost entirely made up with guys under 30.
If KD is healthy and available, he’s going to play, and he’s going to play close to 40 minutes. The only way Durant is playing less than 35 minutes is if the Thunder are smoking their opponent and KD spends the entire fourth quarter with a towel wrapped around his head like a burka while doing funny dances. If you want to trim KD’s overall minutes, you’re going to have to do it by sitting him entirely, which means you’ll have to saw off his legs. Because if he can play, he’s going to play. And play a lot.
(Of note: In terms of minutes per game, Durant leads the league this season at 39.6, was third last season at 38.6, fifth the season before that at 38.9, fourth the season before that at 39.5 and fifth the season before that at 39.0.)
You might be wondering, “Why doesn’t Brooks shuffle around Durant’s minutes a bit more and try and cut some of those heavy nights down?” The reason KD plays so much is pretty simple: The Thunder are so much better with him on the floor. If the Thunder intend to win, they pretty much need Durant on the floor as much as possible. Consider: The Thunder are 13.0 points better per 100 possessions with KD on the court. OKC scores 115.9 points per 100 with Durant, but just 103.6 without him. Total, OKC is a +410 with Durant, but a -34 without him. Really, the Thunder might truly be unstoppable if Durant got his way and played 48 minutes every single night.
If you want to rest Durant, you’re going to need to find a way to replicate his production, which means this might be more of a depth question. Because the temptation for Brooks is to ride Durant as long as possible, night in and night out. Especially because the Thunder’s approach is to value each game individually as extremely important. And why wouldn’t you if it’s obvious that Durant can handle it just fine and excel. Over the past few seasons Durant has developed into one of the best fourth quarter scorers, which suggests despite the minute load, he’s still got something left at the end.
But as Abbott wrote about last season, there appears to be a minute sweet spot for title teams, something like 33 minutes a game for the top three players. The Heat broke a streak of 17 straight seasons where the NBA champions top three players in minutes combined for an average of fewer than 35 minutes a game. LeBron, Wade and Bosh averaged 35.3 together, the most for a title team’s top three since the 1994 Rockets (35.6).
The Thunder’s top three players in minutes this season — Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka — combine to average 36.1. If they maintain that pace, that would be the highest average since the 1993 Bulls (36.3).
Is that something to read into? Again, stats are stats. Sometimes they tell you something, sometimes they don’t. It does seem reasonable that the Thunder rely a bit too much on Durant and while the difference between playing 37 minutes and 40 minutes any given night doesn’t seem huge, by the end of the year, it does add up. But I have a hard time believing that just because you played a bunch of minutes in a back-to-back in January means you’re not going to have all you need in the tank when you’re playing in the Finals in June.
Still, more minutes mean more work, the more chance for injury, the more wear and tear put on your body, the more fatigue you’re battling through.
One question I have though is about the long-term vision. The Thunder preach and live by the long-term. I think Sam Presti has “long-term sustainable success” tattooed across his chest. But if you’re consistently running your horses to death like this, aren’t you damaging those long-term prospects? Like how driving a new car 30,000 miles every year would damage the chances it’s going to last a longer time. Again, maybe that’s an adjustment for six or seven years down the road, but then again knowing KD, probably not.