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Sometimes, life is not fair. Kevin Durant, one of the two or three best basketball players in the world, rushed back from a calf injury he suffered in a playoff game against Houston May 8 to help his Warriors teammates in a must-win NBA Finals game in Toronto Monday night. His reward? A devastating Achilles injury that will not only loom large over the rest of this series against the Raptors but will also have a major impact on Durant’s impending free agency.
Durant clearly was not fully himself when he returned to the court Monday, but even a hobbled Durant is still an incredible player. He scored 11 points and went 3-3 from beyond the arc in the 12 minutes he played, and his mere presence and gravitational pull on defenders as an elite shooter made things so much easier for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson as they whirred around screens and got wide-open looks.
Despite his obvious positive impact on his team, Durant should not have been out there.
There is a common belief that players who play through injuries are warriors, and players who choose to fully recover before returning to play, especially when they are missing relatively important games, are weak and selfish. However, no two injuries are the same, and fans who are passing judgment on the toughness of players from their couches without specific knowledge of the injuries and without possessing detailed medical information are the worst kind of fools.
Even when teams and players have relevant medical information, mistakes get made. Clearly Durant, Golden State front office and medical staff did not know that if he played he was going to tear his Achilles tendon. However, they had to know there was a risk. This Achilles injury was obviously related to his previous injury.
The fact Durant was willing to take such a huge risk in an attempt to save his team’s season is admirable, but was that decision influenced by peer pressure from others within the organization? It had to be, right? Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney were already playing through injuries, albeit different and less-serious ones. The truth is the Warriors had little skin in this decision while Durant had everything to lose. The best-case scenario for the Warriors was Durant played the role of the returning hero, stayed healthy and led the team to a title. The worst-case scenario for the Warriors was Durant got re-injured, they lost the series and then Durant walked in free agency. That was happening anyway if Durant stayed off the court – of course the team was going to push him to play. I do not know what was going through Kevin Durant’s head when he made the decision to return, but I can almost guarantee it was some version of, “I have to be out there with my guys, regardless of the potential consequences.”
In tragic fashion, Durant now gets to face those consequences alone. The history of NBA athletes returning from Achilles injuries does not paint a rosy picture. I cannot think of a single example of a player returning at full strength. Kobe Bryant, Wes Matthews, Dominique Wilkins and Boogie Cousins were all shadows of their former selves when they finally got back on the court, and the rehabilitation period for this injury is almost a full year. If you broaden the scope to serious lower-leg injuries for big men, you get other depressing examples like Bill Walton, Kevin McHale, Greg Oden and Yao Ming. The brutally depressing truth is that Kevin Durant might never be the same player again. After really thinking about this situation, I have so much more respect for Kawhi Leonard’s decision last year to sit out when his recovery from his quadriceps injury was progressing more slowly than expected. He took a short-term public relations hit by not listening to the team doctors in San Antonio, but he fully recovered from his injury and regained his place as one of the best players in the league. Now there is a great chance he is going to lead his team to a championship this season. If only Kevin Durant had followed a similar path. I am hopeful players will learn from this situation and not make similar mistakes in the future.
The specter of Durant’s injury is going to loom large over the rest of the Finals and this summer’s free agency period. Are players going to be less likely to take one- or two-year deals because they want to lock up guaranteed money in case of injuries? Will Durant still get a maximum contract offer from the Knicks, Nets or Warriors despite the fact he will almost assuredly not be able to help the team next year? Only time will tell.
Kevin Durant injury
looms over 2019 NBA Finals
By Andy Thayer