Did Durant quit Team USA due to fatigue, or something else?

Bert A. Ramirez
Did Durant quit Team USA due to fatigue, or something else?
Was Durant's heavy workload the primary reason for his withdrawal from the FIBA World Cup, or is advice from his new advisers to blame?

When reigning NBA and FIBA World Cup MVP Kevin Durant pulled out of Team USA last August 7, less than a week after Paul George suffered that horrendous injury that broke his lower right leg in two places, he cited physical and mental fatigue.

“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,” the 6-foot-9 forward said. “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.” 

The decision, of course, surprised the team, particularly coach Mike Krzyzewski, who expressed the wish that they knew of Durant’s ultimate status even before training camp in Las Vegas began. “We had the whole team building what we were doing around him,” Krzyzewski said. “In everything, because you have really one of the great scorers at the ‘four.’ So how does that change your offense? It changes your offense immensely.”

On the surface, Durant, the NBA’s most prolific scorer last year with an average of 32.0 points, almost five points more than the next-best Carmelo Anthony’s 27.4 norm, indeed has a valid reason to feel burned out. He has done the heavy lifting for the Oklahoma City Thunder even as fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who incidentally will play for Spain in the World Cup games, have suffered through injuries over the past two years.

Durant led all players in the league last year in total minutes played both in the regular season (3,122) and the playoffs (815). It was the third time in the past five seasons that the seven-year veteran led the NBA in that department, trumping by one year the number of times LeBron James (twice), Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Anthony have done that – combined.

Nobody has logged more combined regular-season and playoff minutes over the past three seasons than Durant, not even James who advanced to the NBA finals in all those years. Durant, who turns 26 this coming September 29, has a total of 10,924 minutes played over that period to the 29-year-old James’ second-running 10,811.

Durant’s 15,064 minutes over the past five regular seasons, meanwhile, also lead all other players and trump No. 2 James’ total by 930. The four-time scoring champion has done this by logging at least 3,000 minutes in four of the past five campaigns, excluding (thank God) that lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, where a total of just 66 games was played.

Notwithstanding that supposed break, Durant for that year still averaged a number similar to what he has the past two seasons – 38.6 minutes.  Fact is, Durant has never averaged less than 38.5 minutes since his rookie year in 2007-08, having played in 388 of a possible 394 regular-season games over the past five seasons. In the playoffs, he has never averaged less than 41.9 minutes over the past four years.  

Indeed, those numbers are amazing even for a superstar with a high utilization rate like Durant, and it’s inevitable that they have to catch up with him at some point. But this issue, along with other concerns that could have factored into Durant’s withdrawal from Team USA, is lost in the face of what that withdrawal means to the Americans’ title-retention bid in Spain. 

Durant reiterated the burnout factor during a promotional event for basketball videogame NBA 2K15 in New York last August 19. “It was definitely tough. But I think for myself it was best to step back and rest up,” Durant told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “You play a long 82-game season so I wanted to be smart and realize that I love USA Basketball, I love these guys, but I think it was best for me to step back and get rest and get ready for next season.”

But the question being asked lately is, did fatigue really factor in as the primary reason for Durant’s quitting the team he was expected to lead? The question has assumed legitimacy because of recent developments that seem to lend credence to suspicions expressed by some quarters earlier. The suspicions mainly revolve around off-court issues that are supposedly proving more mentally taxing for Durant, issues that involve his new management team and a looming endorsement switch that is so lucrative it potentially could make him earn more than he actually does playing the game. 

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski says he intended to build the team's offense around Durant. File photo by Georgi Licovski/EPA

Chris Sheridan, writing for his blogsite SheridanHoops, broke this information when he bewailed the influence of Jay-Z and Roc Nation Sports and said that Durant quit Team USA under their direction.  According to Sheridan, it’s not only Durant’s undecided shoe contract future – where he was reportedly offered a huge $285 million, 10-year contract by Under Armour to leave Nike when his current deal with the latter expires on September 30 – that’s causing “widespread disharmony,” in the words of Dime Magazine’s Jack Winter, but the cumulative actions of his agents that are wearing him down mentally.

Over the past year, Durant has left previous benefactors and sponsors Nike and Gatorade unhappy primarily with the way Jay-Z and Roc Nation, which took over from Rob Pelinka (Kobe Bryant’s representative) last summer, have taken a hard stance in his dealings with those sponsors. Winter has described this stance as “intent on capitalizing” on the rapidly ascending marketability of Durant “rather than looking out for (his) longterm best interest.”

“It’s like Jay-Z is determined to do a scorched earth negotiation with everyone Durant is currently signed with, and they aren’t doing him any favors,” a source close to Durant told SheridanHoops on August 15 just before the US beat Brazil 95-78 in its first exhibition game in preparation for the World Cup.

The signing of Durant with Jay-Z and his group, which never had a high-profile basketball star before Durant and thus considered his joining the music magnate’s growing sports agency a landmark accomplishment, represents his third management deal in just seven years in the league. His original agent was Aaron Goodwin.

Since his latest change of agent, Durant has also left Gatorade and signed with Talking Rain, which is behind the Sparkling Ice brand, under not-so-ideal circumstances and has ruffled feathers with Nike and, now, USA Basketball. Jay-Z’s “general hubris,” combined with his relative inexperience, is making things difficult for Durant, according to Sheridan, and he says the fallout has extended to Team USA.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had reportedly seen signs that Durant was distracted when camp started in Las Vegas.  

“I was at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies this past weekend when I got the call from Kevin, and I wasn’t surprised,” Colangelo said matter-of-factly. “That was predicated on his week in Vegas where I thought he was… he had a lot of things on his mind. So for him to indicate that he was mentally and physically exhausted, it kind of came but not as a surprise.”

But Krzyzewski said Durant’s sudden withdrawal, after he had committed to the team as early as a year ago – before he signed with Jay-Z – really blindsided them.

“Looking back, if you could turn back time, you would like for him to make that decision before Vegas.  We might have invited somebody different,” Coach K told Sheridan. “But saying that, that’s in the past, we’re forward, and it puts us a little behind, just like the injuries. I think he had a good camp, not a great camp. He was not as vocal as he usually was. Even after Paul’s injury, he was saying, ‘What can we do when we go to Chicago to get the guys to rally?’ So that’s the reason we were caught unexpected. I asked him to be a leader, and he was leading after the Vegas game.  And then he wasn’t with us.”

Sheridan simply says it was a case of Durant bailing out. “Yes, Durant quit the team. It is semantics, but ‘withdrew’ is reserved for players who told the federation before training camp began that they would not be attending,” Sheridan points out. “If you attended camp in Las Vegas, and if you called coach Mike Krzyzewski to ask for advice on how to be a ‘leader’ when camp resumed in Chicago, and then you blindside Coach K and every other member of the national team, you have ‘quit.’

“What Kevin Durant did was shameful,” Sheridan continues. “And what I have discovered in talking to members of the US federation over the past two days is this: Durant and his agency, Roc Nation, are more interested in cashing in on his MVP award and his expiring Nike deal than they are in having Durant keep his word to the people who were with him in 2010 in Turkey at the World Championship and in 2012 in London at the Olympics.”

One sticking point in Durant’s participation in the World Cup is reportedly Nike’s close affiliation with USA Basketball, for whom it is the sole provider of apparel and equipment, and the sport’s international governing body FIBA. Durant has been with Nike since entering the NBA, but his seemingly contentious negotiations with the sports-apparel brand, whom his agents have informed about Under Armour’s offer – the biggest in history if it goes through – in compliance with a provision of Durant’s Nike contract that gives it the right of first refusal, has put him in an awkward position if he did keep his word to play in Spain.

“Clearly, there would be some discomfort if Durant decided to leave Nike at a time when he was scheduled to be traveling to Gran Canaria, Bilbao, Barcelona and Madrid on a three-week overseas trip where he would be riding on the same bus with numerous Nike executives,” wrote Sheridan. “That dynamic surely played a part in his decision to quit the team.”

And it’s not just Durant’s business relationships that are supposedly feeling the fallout from Jay-Z and Roc Nation’s reported arrogant ways. Even his own family and close friends are likewise affected, too, according to Sheridan.  

“I have heard more about Durant’s inner circle – and the feuds and fallout he is experiencing – than I am comfortable reporting,” the deeply-connected basketball scribe says. “But I will say this: All is not well with the reigning MVP. Far from it. What we are seeing now is the manifestation of that dysfunction.”

“Durant’s departure from Team USA seems to be the continued manifestation of friction ushered in by Jay-Z as opposed to a decision based on his preparation for the 2014-15 season,” Winter himself says.  “And if that’s indeed the case, it’s disheartening to know that such ancillary business influence is weighing so heavily on not just one of basketball’s best players, but its best people, too.”

Durant should pray Team USA indeed retains its World Cup title in Spain. If it does not, he’s sure to be the first to feel the backlash from the public for a change of heart that doesn’t fully look like it draws from his own pronouncement. And that could be bad for an image that is supposed to be at the core of the biggest endorsement contract yet in all sports history.

Biggest sports deal

Just how big is the deal that is being offered to Kevin Durant by relative upstart Under Armour, a deal that is so gigantic it could just pry out the Oklahoma City superstar from his seven-year affiliation with leading sports-apparel brand Nike?

Well, the deal, reported at $285 million over 10 years, will make Durant earn more from it annually than he actually would playing as the Thunder’s franchise star. Last year, Durant was just the 15th-highest paid player in the NBA at $17.83 million, way behind highest-paid LA Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant’s $30.45 million. KD has two years left in his contract worth $41.2 million more.

If Durant does sign Under Armour’s offer, he would be earning around $28.5 million per year, way over $10 million more per annum than he would from what he has left in his Thunder deal over that period.

Under Armour’s deal is so lucrative that it would be devoting nearly 10 percent of its current marketing budget to Durant alone if it goes through, despite the fact that just about one percent of the brand’s projected $3 billion revenues this year would come from basketball shoes.

Durant’s Under Armour deal includes company stocks and other incentives, including a community center to be built in the name of Durant’s mother Wanda Pratt, who singlehandedly raised him and his brother and with whom he has a very close relationship. What also impressed the OKC All-Star about Under Armour’s pitch was reportedly its attention to detail about his life, the hometown element involved (the firm is based in Baltimore, Maryland, just 36 miles away from Durant’s hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland), and the return on investment of its stock, which has grown 96 percent in value over the past year compared to Nike’s 21.5 percent over the same period.  

Under Armour’s limited basketball business now has prompted the company to guarantee Durant money up front, unlike what is done in most other shoe deals, which offer a minimum guarantee plus up to five percent royalty on wholesale revenues. That’s what enabled Michael Jordan to earn more than $100 million from Nike last year out of the royalties on sales of his Jordan brand.  

Despite that, however, Under Armour has decided to make Durant the unprecedented offer because its CEO and founder Kevin Plank feels Durant could expand the company’s small shoe business and improve its international presence that has lagged behind its sales growth in North America. With Durant as one of its flagship endorsers along with Bryant and LeBron James, Nike was able to do that, with Durant’s signature business having grown to about $175 million at retail last year.

Nike will now have the right to match Under Armour’s offer as the 6-9 hotshot’s contract with the brand stipulates.  If Nike chooses not to do so, Durant may still opt to remain with the firm but if it does, he has no other legal recourse but to stay put.

The odds, however, are still against Nike given Jay-Z and Roc Nation’s influence, which, according to ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell, “started to turn the tables” in terms of eroding Durant’s long-time loyalty to Nike when they took over as Durant’s management team last year. It would be remembered that Durant, fresh from a stellar college career at Texas, chose to sign with Nike for $60 million even if that was more than $20 million less than what Adidas had offered.

If indeed Durant finally goes to Under Armour, his contract will break the $250 million deal Chicago’s Derrick Rose signed with Adidas a year after his 2011 MVP season in terms of magnitude. That deal is spread over 14 years, giving it a value of just under $18 million per annum.

One other significant fallout if Durant signs with Under Armour: He could opt out of Oklahoma City when his playing contract expires in 2016. This is because both Durant and his major partner would now have a commonality in terms of their Maryland link, and it’s been an open secret that the home state’s Washington Wizards intend to go after the league’s top scorer once he becomes available in the free-agent market. 

SHORTSHOTS: The final 12 on the US team that will defend its FIBA World Cup title in Spain starting August 30 has just been named, with Damian Lillard, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward turning out to be the final cuts.  We went 10-2 with our prediction on the final roster.  More on this on Wednesday… Our Gilas Pilipinas team has gone winless in five tuneup games since winning its first three practice contests back in Miami and Vitoria, Spain.  But one good news is Jayson Castro’s having bounced back from what was thought as a serious ankle injury sustained in the Filipinos’ 75-66 loss to the Basque Country national team last August 19.  Castro played 15 minutes and scored two points in an 83-74 loss against African champion Angola a day later… Just undercut by Jason Kidd for his coaching job in Milwaukee, Larry Drew has been added to Cleveland first-year headman David Blatt’s staff as an assistant, joining associate head coach Tyronn Lue, Jim Boylan, Brit Brielmaier and James Posey.  Drew once also coached in Atlanta. – Rappler.com

 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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