The 2018-19 NBA season is now over. The Toronto Raptors’ gutsy, risky trade has paid off, perhaps as one of the best trades ever made. They brought in Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green!) in the hopes he would lead them to the promised land. Leonard is now only the third player ever to win Finals MVP with two different teams, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James. He is the first to do it in two different conferences! He delivered in spades. Congratulations to the players, the entire franchise, and Canada!
KD Goes Down
Not lost in any of this to anyone is the tremendously sad injury suffered by Kevin Durant, and now Klay Thompson as well. Durant initially went down in Game 5 of the second round against the Rockets. This was described as a bad calf strain. The Warriors were able to gut out that game and Game 6 to send the Rockets home. They proceeded to sweep the Trail Blazers with what seemed careless indifference. Facing a 3 to 1 deficit heading back to Toronto in the Finals, Durant suited up. He was excellent in the 12 minutes he played, but then in the second quarter, he went down and immediately went to clutch his ankle. The Warriors went on to win Game 5. The next day, it was confirmed that Durant had suffered a torn Achilles, and had undergone surgery to repair it.
The Achilles Heel of Injuries
A torn Achilles is one of, if not the most devastating injuries for an NBA player to suffer. Recently, significant players to endure this injury include: Demarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Wes Matthews, Kobe Bryant, and Brandon Jennings. Cousins’ injury happened last year when he was 28. Gay’s occurred in 2017 when he was 30. Matthews happened in 2015 at age 28. Jennings was in 2015 at 26. Bryant was 34, carrying the Lakers to the 8th seed in 2013. Achilles injuries also occurred to players like Chauncey Billups and Anderson Varejao, and led to the end of their long careers.
As of now, none of these players returned to the heights they were at before the injury. Bryant was near the end of his career, but in that 2012-13 season, he averaged 27 a game. Bryant played just 107 games in the three seasons following. Matthews’ injury occurred during his contract year. He was still offered a deal by the Mavericks, but his shooting percentages and efficiency have not reached the levels of his Portland days. He is now on the Pacers, set to be a free agent. While he has not been the same player after the injury, Matthews is still in the league and is a competent player.
Jennings was always a bit of a fringe player. After his injury, he never averaged double digit scoring again, and his already shoddy efficiency went down further. He played in just 143 games over the three years following and was not in the league last season. Gay has played 126 games the last two years since his injury. He is certainly not the player he was, but he found a nice role on the Spurs the last couple years and is an upcoming free agent. He still probably has a future in the league.
For Cousins, it is still probably too early to tell what will happen. Cousins signed a one year deal with the Warriors last summer. He only played in 30 games. During the first round against the Clippers, Cousins suffered a quad injury, but returned for the Finals, to limited effectiveness. He is also set to be a free agent this summer. Due to his body structure and style, it could be harder for him to recover long term, but he is still on the younger side.
This is an injury, this specific one to Durant, that will totally alter the landscape of the NBA. It directly affects the Warriors and the Knicks. He can opt into his player option, harming the Warriors’ cap situation (and this is even before figuring out the Thompson situation). The Knicks were the supposed front runner to get Durant as a free agent this summer, and now even if they do, he will miss all of next season. This applies to any interested team. That will impact the decisions of players like Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, and whatever the hell is happening with Anthony Davis. Durant is a player that can carry a team to the playoffs and beyond, and now he will not play basketball, optimistically until next April.
Don’t Count Him Out Yet
Clearly, this injury is absolutely devastating. It saps players of their athleticism and can be challenging mentally to get over. However, none of the above-mentioned players are Kevin Durant. Durant has had a basically clean bill of health his entire career, save for the 2014-15 season where he missed most of the year to a foot injury.
Beyond that, however, is Durant the person. He has received so much hate and flak for the “easy way out” and joining the Warriors. That decision led to three straight Finals trips, two championships, and two Finals MVPs. While all of the players who have torn their Achilles are excellent athletes and have had to work so hard to get where they are, they are not Durant. By all counts, he really, really cares. This injury will not stop him. Another player who suffered a torn Achilles was Dominique Wilkins in the 91-92 season, at the age of 32. Wilkins was one of the top players in the league. He proceeded to return and was even better than the year before! He ended up playing 71, 74, and 77 games over the next three years, and was still an excellent player.
This is all to say, I would bet on Durant. Yes, he will likely miss all of next year. Indeed, he will be 32 by the time he comes back. Sure, his contract could be problematic for whoever ends up with him. But Durant is one of the greatest players of all time. It looked like he was hitting a different level before the injury. He is a transcendent talent whose game will age well. He is a 7-footer with the elite skills of a guard and an unparalleled scoring touch and instincts. His defense is not credited enough, because he is a game-changer on that end as well.
The rehab process will be a long road back, but he will be utterly supported by whoever his team is and his circle around him. This injury is a seismic shift in the structure of the NBA right now, but whatever team decides to take a shot on Durant will be getting one of the hardest working and most talented people in the league, and that will pay off.