Achilles tears are a brutal injury to come back from as an NBA player. Few stars have looked the same after their recoveries in recent years, most recently DeMarcus Cousins with the Warriors. That is the unfortunate backdrop facing Kevin Durant as the star forward crumbled to the court on Monday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. While no official diagnosis has been made yet (an MRI awaits), multiple sources told ESPN on Tuesday morning that an Achilles rupture is expected, something that would not be a surprise given the reaction of team president Bob Myers in a postgame presser last night.
Bob Myers fighting back tears talking about KD's injury: “I don’t believe there’s anyone to blame…if you have to, you can blame me."
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 11, 2019
It’s a brutal situation for Durant who had the weight of the world on his shoulders last night. If he had not played in a must-win situation and watched his teammates go down with their season on the line without him giving it a shot, his absence probably follows him for the remainder of his career as a storyline. Instead, Durant returned despite some understandable risks of re-injury and seems guaranteed now to spend at the least the majority of next season on the sidelines as he recovers.
The Warriors will attempt to continue their comeback from a 3-1 daunting deficit against the Raptors without him now but the domino effect of a devastating injury for a top-5 player in the NBA will be felt far and wide this summer as teams strategize for the year ahead. Life changed a lot for the future of Durant, the Warriors and potentially several other franchises (including the Celtics) on Monday night. What paths will it lead to remains unclear, but it all starts with the All-Star's future.
Few players in the NBA are good enough to ignore the risk factor by playing on short-term deals in order to maintain flexibility. Durant has followed LeBron’s lead over the past few years by doing so in Golden State. He signed a two-year deal last summer with a $31.5 million player option for next year. Despite what may be a wasted year in 2019-20, he will be paid handsomely wherever he goes. However, the question now is where he wants that next stop to be given the lack of certainty in his immediate playing future.
Warriors: Golden State has always insisted they want him back and may feel obligated to offer him a long-term max deal given the circumstances of Durant’s injury. The franchise will be in luxury tax hell for the foreseeable future with the repeater tax but their position has always been to give Durant whatever kind of deal he wants. Durant has been rumored to leave the Bay Area all season but his injury situation may give him pause. Will he want the comfort of familiar surroundings and elite teammates as he battles back? Or will he hold ill will against the franchise for pressuring him to come back during the finals? Only Durant can answer these questions in the coming weeks but this type of injury situation may open the door more for a return to Golden State, something that seemed like a long shot before Monday night.
Other Durant suitors: If Durant still wants out, it will come as a small consolation price to teams in New York and Los Angeles who had hoped to build a team around him. There’s no question that Durant will still get a full four-year max offer from someone (probably multiple teams) after this Achilles injury but there is far more risk with it now. What if Durant doesn’t return to All-Star form after his injury? Will it be tougher to sell a free agent pairing with Durant if he’s on the shelf for the first year of his deal? A couple of teams that have hoarded cap space for this summer were guaranteed to be disappointed anyway with the results of free agency but now that list might grow longer with the top player on the market unavailable for at least half of next season (at minimum). A win-now team construction involving Durant may no longer be an option for the 2019-20 season.
Contenders for the 2019-20 season: No matter where Durant ends up, there’s no question that he’s unlikely to return to All-Star form immediately whenever he does get back on the floor. Research shows a long grind for players recovering from a ruptured Achilles and while some push back within 6-9 months, the dropoff in performance has been notable:
NBA players with Achilles tears typically needed almost 9 months to recover, and they tended to have a significant reduction in both playing time and performance in the season following the trauma, according to a list compiled by @ESPNStatsInfo. https://t.co/ouEU0Mf8uR pic.twitter.com/EKDG1dLJKC
— FiveThirtyEight (@FiveThirtyEight) June 11, 2019
That reality may change the mindset of certain teams when it comes to putting together a contender for the 2019-20 season. While the NBA landscape was expected to be more wide open at the top with the assumption that Durant would be departing Golden State this summer, now that case can be made to a degree even if he re-signs with the Warriors. Golden State has clearly looked vulnerable without him in the NBA Finals and some teams may be eager to push their chips to the middle of the table with a window of opportunity for a title arising in 2020. There is one superstar already available in Anthony Davis via trade and acquiring him, even for a rental, just got a little more appealing for potential contenders.
What about the Celtics?