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Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Watch that playing time

By Henry Abbott

Back in January, I dug deep into the issue of minutes. The key point is that it has been seven years -- before changes in refereeing inspired intense, frenetic, ball-side loading helping defenses -- since any star playing huge minutes has won a title:
If you ran the Bulls, Thunder or Lakers (three teams with title aspirations and players putting in long minutes), you might like to know that it has been a surprisingly long time since teams with players logging very heavy regular-season minutes won a title -- and it's not for lack of trying.

3,000 minutes in a regular season means not missing a game in an 82-game season, while playing a mighty 37 minutes every outing.

Somehow, this is quite common: Over the last 20 years, players have passed that high bar an incredible 324 times. And beginning with the era of Michael Jordan's Bulls, such players commonly won titles -- 11 of 13 champions starred iron men in the 3,000 club, very often Jordan himself.

But something changed in the NBA about the time Larry Brown's Pistons won the title. Over the last seven years, since Ben Wallace in 2004, NBA players have played beyond the 3,000-minute mark in the regular season nearly 100 times. The players who have done that are essentially a who's who of NBA studs. The vast majority are All-Stars, and many have won titles. The names include LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh.

But interestingly, when those players played those heavy regular-season minutes, do you know how many of them won titles?

In the last seven years: Zero.

They all won their titles in seasons when they played fewer than 3,000 regular-season minutes.

I'm bringing this up now because we're in the part of the season where teams suddenly really respect rest. Players like Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant put in long minutes for much of the season. But now ... Rose wanted to play Tuesday night, but the team held him back. Bryant has carried multiple injuries all year, but is only now sitting because of them. All kinds of playoff-bound stars -- from Dwight Howard to Mike Conley -- have been out here and there. It seems to make more sense than ever to sit now, because everybody wants to be at their best in the playoffs.

My research in January suggested that in a 66-game season, about 2,200 minutes would be the sweet spot, above which it would be out of step with recent history to win a title.

56 games in, several playoff-bound NBA stars are well ahead of that pace. Here's the entire list. Kevin Durant is at the top, followed by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Josh Smith, Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala.

Meanwhile, there are also plenty of stars -- many, but not all of whom are old, or have been nursing injuries -- who will enter the playoffs with fairly light minute loads. They include Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett, Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony, Serge Ibaka, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, Derrick Rose and Jason Kidd.

Among top contenders, the Lakers and Thunder stars play heavy minutes. The Heat are somewhere in the middle, while the Spurs and Bulls leaders carry lighter regular season loads into the playoffs.