Kevin Durant's Decision Could Mean Big Things for OKC Thunder

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 31:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder walks off the court after Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 31, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Richard Rowe/NBAE via Getty Images)
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

It's no secret that Kevin Durant's absence from Team USA will put a dint in the squad's chances at this summer's FIBA World Cup.

The less-told story is what it might mean for the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team Durant led all the way to the 2014 Western Conference Finals. Though OKC ultimately faltered to the San Antonio Spurs in six games (thanks in some part to big man Serge Ibaka missing Games 1 and 2 with a leg injury), the franchise is poised for a successful follow-up campaign.

And the reigning MVP's decision to withdraw from Team USA can't hurt.

Durant released a statement explaining his thought process, saying (via, "After going through training camp with USAB, I realized I could not fulfill my responsibilities to the team from both a time and energy standpoint."

He added, "I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season."

"Kevin … expressed that he is just physically and mentally drained from the NBA season and his attention to his many responsibilities," chairman of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo said in a statement, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt and Adi Joseph. "He tried to give it a go at our recent Las Vegas training camp but felt coming out of camp that he was not prepared to fulfill the commitment he made to the team."

The burdens on Durant were significant last season. 

The 25-year-old carried the Thunder as star sidekick Russell Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from a torn meniscus he suffered in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. In addition to handling the lion's share of the club's scoring and playmaking duties during that time, Durant was again forced to shoulder heavy playing time.

As's Kurt Helin notes, "No player played more total minutes last season than Kevin Durant, 3,122 in the regular season, averaging 38.5 a night for 81 games. Then you can tack on another 815 minutes in 19 playoff games (almost 43 minutes a game)."

The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry adds, "It was the third time in the past five seasons that Durant led the league in total minutes played."

Put simply, Durant probably deserves a break.

"As we go forward there’s no question that’s something we want to look at and understand," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of Durant's playing time at season's end, per Mayberry. "Not only for the long term, but to also make sure we are getting the most out of the minutes that are played during one particular game or another…I can’t tell you what comes of it."

So Oklahoma City isn't quite committing to a reduced workload for its dynamic star, but at least the organization is giving the issue some thought.

It would seem Durant is, too.

Lost in more easily quantified talk of minutes is that Durant also highlighted the mental fatigue associated with a campaign in which the Thunder came oh-so-close to another appearance in the NBA Finals. It's become a familiar story for a franchise that's been in the title hunt during each of the last four seasons.

After losing to the Miami Heat by a 4-1 margin in the 2012 Finals, the club's quest for vindication was derailed by Westbrook's injury in 2013. The Thunder ultimately lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the conference semifinals that season.

A breakout 2010-11 season was cut short in the conference finals against the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.

For a guy who doesn't like being second-best, the string of premature postseason exits has to have taken a toll.

On the one hand, then, Durant's exit from the FIBA World Cup will ensure he's prepared for the still-significant minutes he'll again shoulder. Sparing him any unnecessary wear-and-tear will almost certainly yield some dividends.

And on the other hand, KD will have a chance to mentally decompress and refocus. Given the extent to which success at this level is determined by psychological readiness, a little rest and relaxation may be every bit as important as physical preservation.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 28: Kevin Durant #52 of the USA Basketball Men's National Team is worked on in the training room at the Wynn Las Vegas before departing for practice on July 28, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Even with Westbrook healthy and available from the start of the season, Durant's elite contributions will remain pivotal to OKC's ambitions. The club simply can't afford for its best player to take a step back, especially after a summer in which the Thunder did little to upgrade the roster's depth.

While Oklahoma City is likely hoping improvement from 22-year-old swingman Jeremy Lamb could ease some of the demand on Durant, there's little guarantee the Connecticut product is fully ready to adopt a more prominent role in the rotation after averaging just 19.7 minutes per game last season.

In any event, there's a reason Durant was named last season's MVP.

No player was more instrumental to his team's success. The five-time All-Star averaged career highs of 32 points and 5.5 assists per game, hinting at the extent to which he became a jack-of-all-trades as Westbrook missed nearly half the season.

Durant also tallied 7.4 rebounds per contest and undertook difficult defensive assignments at both forward positions, adding 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per game on account of his exceptional length and busy hands.

It wouldn't be very realistic to expect more out of Durant, but the Thunder aren't going anywhere without another transcendent individual performance.

While Durant won over some fans with an MVP acceptance speech that struck all the right notes, his popularity would reach new heights with a championship in hand. It's the next step in a career that's quickly garnered plenty of accolades.

And based on Durant's most recent decision, it's a step he's prepared to take.


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