There was a moment in overtime in Game 6 against the Spurs where Kevin Durant leaned over, grabbed at his shorts and desperately tried to find air. He was visibly exhausted, having only had one minute of rest in a must-win situation.
Not long after, Durant had a decently clean look from 3 with 16 seconds left, a chance to tie the game and breath a little life back into the Thunder. His jumper came up short, and so did the Thunder’s season. Durant doubled back over, and was left to think about an overtime in which he didn’t score. He missed all three of his shots, a jumper and two 3s, and spent most of the five minutes letting Kawhi Leonard deny him the ball without much resistance. He looked tired. He looked worn.
Minute management is a pretty hot topic right now, with the way the Spurs have diced the Heat up with ease, looking like the fresher, springier group despite playing with a bunch of old dudes. Not a single Spur played more than 30 minutes a game this season as Gregg Popovich masterfully handled the workload of his team. He minded back-to-backs, he sacrificed individual games for the greater good, and trusted in his bench not only to carry the slack, but also expected them to be better for the extra minutes they got.
With the Spurs up 3-1 on the Heat and a game away from a fifth championship ring, it’s not that he looks like a genius. He already is one. So he’s just re-affirming it. Like Martin Scorsese making another great movie. It’s not surprising when someone that’s great at what they do does something that’s great.
But with a decent amount of criticism sent Scott Brooks’ way for playing Durant too much, and some feeling that was a contributing factor to the Thunder falling short to the Spurs, there’s something interesting you should know: Popovich did the same thing with Tim Duncan.
In Duncan’s first seven seasons, he played a total of 20,253 minutes in the regular season, or 38.9 minutes per game. In Durant’s first seven seasons, he played a total of 20,717 minutes, or 38.1 minutes per game. Some pointed out the fact Durant played almost 4,000 minutes this season (3,937, to be exact), but in Duncan’s fifth season, 2002-03, he did play 4,000 (4,202, to be exact).
Or take Tony Parker. His first six seasons, he played a total of 15,567 minutes, or 33.0 per game. In Russell Westbrook’s first six seasons, he’s played a total of 14,932 minutes, or 33.9 per game.
Brooks has routinely answered the fatigue question with, “they’re young, they can handle it.” It has always seemed a little too dismissive, especially with the growing piles of research and stats suggesting fatigue is a pretty big influence, regardless of age. But Popovich wasn’t a subscriber to minute management early on either, leaning on his stars to play a whole lot. Popovich didn’t really make the move to distribute minutes until five or six seasons ago, when his players started showing some gray in their beards.
Doesn’t mean Durant wasn’t tired in that Game 6 six, though. Brooks has routinely taken a short-sighted view with minutes, playing Durant 42 minutes in the season finale against the Pistons. And there’s this, too: Durant’s on-court workload is pretty ridiculous. He’s running off screens, handling the ball, scoring in transition and defending multiple positions. Per SportVU, Durant was fifth in the league in total distance traveled, logging 202.6 miles. That’s like running from Oklahoma City to Dallas. Per game, Durant ran 2.5 miles. The most any Spur ran this season? Tony Parker at 151.3 miles, 90th in the league. The Thunder had three players run farther than any single Spur (Durant, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson).
Clearly, this adjustment from Popovich is something that he’s done to evolve with his existing roster. It was a necessary change to adapt to his aging team. But the Spurs were also winning titles with Duncan playing big, if not massive amounts of minutes. From 1997 to 2003, Duncan played the fifth-most minutes in the league, a time in which the Spurs put away two of their four championships.
We know more than we did then, and a fresher player equals a better player. There’s less risk of injury and more of a chance the player performs at his highest level for longer stretches of time. Maybe a 4,000-minute season now will have an impact on Durant when he’s 34 years old. Maybe it had an impact on him when he was lining up that game-tying 3 with 16 seconds left against the Spurs. Durant has logged the second most minutes in the league since 2010 (behind only LeBron), including the postseason.
But taking the Spurs’ current formula and applying it directly to everyone else — specifically, the Thunder — isn’t exactly fair. Different rosters, different people, different ages. What Popovich is doing now is vital to his team’s success. Same as what he was doing back in 2002 when he was playing Duncan 40 minutes a game.