Print and Go Back ESPN.com: TrueHoop [Print without images]

Monday, April 8, 2013
Playing too much to win it all?

By Henry Abbott


Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE/Getty Images
If heavy minutes hurt title chances, Kevin Durant and the Thunder are in trouble.

Nine seasons and counting.

That's how long it has been since an NBA player won a title after playing more than 3,000 minutes in the regular season.

That's food for thought for Kevin Durant (20 minutes shy of that level with five games to play), who is playing more than anyone this season.

Kobe Bryant is not far behind and has been making news by averaging a mighty 46 minutes over the Lakers' past four games. Bryant has to play only about 25 per game the rest of the way to surpass 3,000.

LeBron James was on a crash course with the threshold, too, until minutes-conscious coach Erik Spoelstra sat him down for a few games. Now he'd have to play more than 36 minutes in every remaining Heat game to pass that mark, which is unlikely.

It's not that 3,000 is a magic threshold, really. The bigger point is that evidently, rest matters.

These days, title teams tend to be led by players who play moderate minutes.

Which is new. Winning titles and playing crazy minutes was long common in the NBA. Michael Jordan did it several times. Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, too.

But since Ben Wallace in 2004, a grand total of zero NBA players have pulled it off. (This holds true when adjusted for the lockout, too: LeBron's first title came after playing what would have been 2,889 minutes in an 82-game season.)

It's not for lack of trying. About 100 times since 2004, players including James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Chris Paul have played 3,000-plus minutes. But every one of those seasons, the title has gone to a team led by someone who played fewer.

The going theory is that a minute of NBA play is more work than it used to be. Watch how the Bulls, Heat or Pacers play defense, with bodies flying everywhere all possession long. Once upon a time, players stuck to guarding one man, which often meant catching a breather. Good defenses these days are all about loading the strongside box, which means a hell of a lot of scrambling. That style of defense has been growing in popularity and has evidently been limiting the number of big scorers.

The best teams are playing defense like that, and playing against defenses like that, all season long.

It's hard work on both ends. Maybe it's wearing players out.

Coaches seem to be adjusting, by and large, by reducing minutes for top players. A decade ago, nine players averaged 40 minutes or more per game. Now whole seasons pass with nobody playing that much; only Monta Ellis has passed that mark in the last three seasons of NBA play.

But if you look at the long-players, they are, of course, a who's who: After Durant, Kobe, Paul George and LeBron come playoff-bound scorers like James Harden, Stephen Curry, Luol Deng, Klay Thompson, David Lee, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Al Horford. In a league where winning means so much, especially for a coach's job security, players like that can be tough to sit.

Sitting them can cost you a lead, or a game.

But evidently it also comes with the serious upside of increasing your likelihood of winning a title, which is why it's no surprise to see top players resting this time of year. (The bigger surprise is that NBA rules force teams to gin up tales of injuries to justify good medium-term planning.)

In Vegas, the top three contending teams at the moment, in order, are the Heat, Thunder and Spurs. The Heat have played their top players a lot, but not a crazy amount. The Thunder, thanks largely to Durant's crazy minutes, might be the league's most flagrant violators.

The Spurs, meanwhile ... forget three thousand minutes. They barely have any players over two thousand.

That doesn't mean they'll make it past the Thunder or Heat, but if minutes matter, it does mean the coaches have done what they can to maximize success.