The Kevin Durant Case: Does Regular Season Fatigue Impact Playoff Performance?

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The Kevin Durant Case: Does Regular Season Fatigue Impact Playoff Performance?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has played Kevin Durant a ton of minutes this year. Will it derail Oklahoma City's title hopes?

This year, Kevin Durant joined the 3,000-minute club for a third time.

It isn't a very exclusive club. Since 1990-91 there have been 346 individual seasons of players logging 3,000 minutes, which is the equivalent of playing 36.5 minutes per night in all 82 regular season games.

Names like Ricky Davis, Morris Peterson, Eric Snow, Michael Dickerson, Chris Mills and Clarence Weatherspoon dot the list. Tyrone Corbin, Scott Skiles and Sam Mitchell are even members.

For Durant, being among these names means little. 

But in order for his season to end well, he will have to join a much more exclusive list of players: the 3,000-minute club of title winners.

Since 1990-91, only Michael Jordan (six times), Scottie Pippen (four times), Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace have won a championship while logging 3,000 or more minutes in the regular season. 

All are or will be in the Hall of Fame.

Durant is surely headed to Springfield himself, so that fact shouldn't be daunting.

But what is scary is that Wallace was the last player to join.

Nobody since 2003-04 has won a title while logging at least 3,000 regular-season minutes. Three players have made it to the NBA Finals (Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and LeBron, who has done so twice), but all have come up short.

We're talking about nearly a decade since it has happened, and it probably isn't a coincidence; the reason nobody can log major minutes and still be fresh enough at the end of the year to raise a banner is likely because modern defense is exhausting to play. 

Since the rule changes in the summer of 2004 (that outlawed hand checking and permitted zone defensive principles), a game of NBA basketball has become much more rigorous. There is no longer much standing around and watching the player with the ball. If you're on defense, you are doing something: rotating, hedging, fighting through countless screens.

David Thorpe, a player trainer and ESPN analyst, offered his take on why defense has become so draining in a piece by Henry Abbott, who explored this same phenomenon last year for ESPN's TrueHoop

“Being an NBA player is far more work now. Tom Thibodeau is the guy who figured out how to take advantage of the new rules. And watch his teams. The minutes now are so much more intense. There is movement all the time, unless you’re guarding isolation, which is rare. And it’s movement towards action. There’s more contact. There’s more mental fatigue. There’s more to do. Ask coaches who were in the league before and after, like Rick Adelman or Pat Riley. They’ll tell you. There’s just so much more to defense these days.”

Fortunately for Durant, there may be hope.

Last year's regular season was cut short by the lockout, so LeBron didn't play 3,000 minutes. (He clocked 2,326 in 62 games.) But he did play an inordinate number of minutes in the playoffs. His 983 postseason minutes—43.9 minutes per game—were easily the most anyone played in the 2012 playoffs. (His teammate Dwyane Wade finished second at 907 while Durant was third with just 837).

Until last year, as I wrote about for Hoopspeak in June 2012, the recent trend of massive playing time hurting title chances also extended to the postseason. Until LeBron, nobody who averaged 42 or more minutes per game had won a title since Tim Duncan did so in 2003. But James blew that number out of the water, and his 983 playoff minutes logged last season are now the seventh-most among players who have won titles since 1980. 

So it's safe to say that playing a ton of minutes in the playoffs and continuing on to raise a title is possible.

Then again, James didn't have 3,000 regular-season minutes on his odometer already.

Despite the fatigue challenges created by the lockout-shorted schedule, he was relatively well rested heading into the postseason.

It may say something that LeBron lost in his first two trips to Finals while playing more than 3,000 regular-season minutes but won in the year he played less than 2,400.

Worse still, it is no longer just defense that is sapping energy.

Offenses across the league are evolving to incorporate more movement, which means that both ends of the floor are now a grind.

Zach Lowe of Grantland recently wrote a tremendous account of how more-complex offensive sets are making players think and move more than ever before.

Offenses are more complex now than they were even at the start of last season. The NBA may still be a pick-and-roll league, but the pick-and-roll a team really wants to run might come after several different "fake" actions designed to confuse defenders or get their momentum moving in the wrong direction. Predictable offenses just aren't good enough anymore against elite competition

He continues.

Teams are also better at disguising their true intentions. Ray Allen running across the foul line to the left side of the floor might be just a decoy designed to get the defense to bend to that side right as Miami runs something deadlier on the other side. And a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor with 15 seconds on the shot clock might represent the first in a series of pick-and-rolls rather than a scoring attempt in its own right.

In short, both defense and offense are more complex than they were back when players in the 3,000-minute club were winning titles.

Can it still be done? Can players log huge minutes and win titles? 

Can Durant?

Perhaps. But if he does, he will be an exception to what increasingly looks like a minute plateau that coaches should be weary of letting their players cross.

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