KD’s Achilles Is the NBA’s Sliding Door Moment
When Kevin Durant came rushing back from a calf injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in an effort to become the series’ game changer, two paths appeared. On one, he stayed healthy, and win or lose, would become the most desirable free agent in the league, making a decision that would impact the league for years. In the other, his body wasn’t ready, and he would jeopardize his career as well as the plans of all the franchises that lined up for his services.
As even non-NBA fans know, we’re on the second path, as the ruptured Achilles tendon heard round the world will alter the course of NBA history for the worse.
Durant confirmed via Instagram on Wednesday that he had, indeed, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, and immediately underwent surgery to start the long, tedious road to recovery. The most optimistic timeline shelves him for 6-9 months, but after his premature play in the finals led to the injury itself, one can safely expect something more along the lines of 9-12 months - or more - according to Dr. David Chao, a noted orthopedic surgeon who has worked with NFL teams for more than 17 years.
An Achilles injury is the worst in sports. In the American Journal of Sports Medicine’s study on Achilles injuries, 19 of the 62 professional athletes evaluated between 1989 and 2013 (including 25 from the NBA) were unable to return. Of the 16 players in the NBA who were able to successfully make a comeback from Achilles injury, only Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins was able to approximate his pre-injury production.
Wilkins, who suffered the gruesome injury when he was 32 in 1992, took 283 days to return - about nine and a half months. For comparison, Durant’s teammate DeMarcus Cousins went 357 days - almost exactly a full year - before returning to action, and has yet to regain his All-Star form, though his later quad injury did not help matters.
Wilkins pre-injury stats (26.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 762 games) and post-injury stats (25.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 312 games) are almost identical, so while the odds are stacked against Durant returning to his peak form, Wilkins’ recovery story provides a glimmer of hope for all the teams willing to take a risk on Durant this summer.
Before his injury, Durant was the prize of free agency. If Golden State had convinced him to stay, the dynasty would have continued, with all roads to the Championship going through the Warriors’ new home in San Francisco. If he headed east to one of the New York teams, the balance of power may have shifted back to the conference of Jordan and prime-LeBron. Instead, his injury has a decidedly devastating domino effect on free agency now that he is expected to miss likely all of the 2019-2020 season.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that three teams are still interested in Durant despite his injury, but there’s more to it than that. What about the other top-tier free agents who were planning to link up with him? At a few junctures, Kyrie Irving and KD looked like a package deal; what does this do to Kyrie’s free agency plans? He and others will have to weigh the risk of planning a course forward next season with and without the two-time Finals MVP.
Can they afford to wait for him to return? If they wait, what type of Kevin Durant will they be getting back?
As it stands now, only the Golden State Warriors have the talent to survive a season without Durant. The injury appears to have opened a window for his return to the Bay Area, as Durant can exercise his $31.5 million player option or sign a longer term contract as insurance if all else fails.
To the rest of the teams with cap space, Durant is expected to become $38 to $39 million worth of unusable talent next season. While the promise of a healthy Durant is scintillating, a team that signs him would almost certainly be mortgaging next season and hoping to be able to squeeze two to three years out of a healthy Durant, who would be fully healed at the age of 32.
There isn’t a franchise in the league that won’t feel the ramifications of Durant’s decision to suit up for Game 5, even if all the permutations aren’t yet obvious. Look to Brooklyn, which just days ago made a trade with Atlanta, sacrificing present and future draft picks to clear the space for two max-contract free agents, but now has one fewer option to spend the money on. Does Brooklyn make that trade if KD is already injured? If he never played, does he justify their choice even if he doesn’t sign, because at least they had the option?
For Durant though, perhaps not playing was never an option. We know in his instance better than most, that he is tremendously aware of the conversation around him and his choices, and his decision to risk his health and his future for the Warriors’ three-peat may have been his only chance to take back his narrative and earn back the respect he lost when he joined the Warriors. Perhaps the burner accounts can finally be deactivated.
But at what cost? In the Game of Thrones finale, Jon Snow, tortured by his own difficult choice, asked Tyrion if he had done the right thing. “Ask me again in ten years,” he replied.
It may be that long before we can take stock of all the ways Kevin Durant’s achilles injury changed the course of basketball forever.