Kevin Durant was thrashing the Raptors. He had returned just in the nick of time, with his team down 3-1 amid the worst NBA Finals performance of their dynastic five-year run. He was Golden State’s warrior in shining armor, the most efficient NBA Finals scorer ever, here to save the day.
Fourteen game minutes later, the story turned into a disaster. Durant’s calf injury worsened to an Achilles injury, a diagnosis with serious implications for the rest of his career. An MRI confirmed the worst-case scenario: Durant ruptured his Achilles, just before entering an offseason as the most coveted free agent in a star-stacked market.
Head coach Steve Kerr told reporters the decision to play was made by Durant, his agent Rich Kleinman, the Warriors’ medical staff and a second opinion medical. It’s clear now that decision was made far too soon, though Kerr said he’d do it again in a heartbeat:
“Would we go back and do it over again? Damn right,” Kerr said, according to The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver. “Our feeling was the worst thing he could do was reinjure the calf. The Achilles came as a complete shock.”
Those who argued Durant had everything to gain and nothing to lose by returning from injury early got it completely wrong. Kevin Durant paid the ultimate sacrifice. The injury could cost him all of next season, and years off the tail end of his prime.
Durant has a saving grace: he can delay his free agency by exercising the player option on the second year of his contract. The option is scheduled to pay him $31.5 million, only $1.2 million short of what he’d earn in Year 1 on a new max contract anywhere else. Another saving grace: his transcendent talent, which reportedly will draw max contract interest from multiple teams, regardless of his injury.
But players who aren’t Tier 1 superstars don’t have this luxury. Even some who are stars in their prime can feel the league’s wrath. Just ask Isaiah Thomas, who was poised for a max contract in Boston before he sacrificed his body for a Celtics team that traded him for Kyrie Irving two months later. Thomas has never been the same, and was forced to settle for a minimum contract this season.
Or, maybe ask DeMarcus Cousins, an All-Star who was met with zero big-money offers in free agency after he tore his Achilles on the Pelicans last season. Cousins was stuck signing for the mid-level exception of $5.3 million with Golden State. He worked diligently to return, but then suffered a quad injury in the first round and hasn’t been the same since. It is unclear what Cousins’ market will be now, and the Warriors’ can only offer him a minimal raise.
Maybe Kevon Looney, who is also a free agent, should take note. Looney, currently operating on a veteran’s minimum contract, played through a fractured collarbone, only to re-aggravate his injury in Game 5. He will enter free agency this summer, his first chance at a big payday. He’s expected to play again in Game 6, but for what reason? At what long-term cost?
Those questions apply double to Durant. Did he really have enough reason to play?
It couldn’t have been about proving he was the difference on a championship team, to combat the ridiculous notion the Warriors were somehow better without their two-time Finals MVP. Could it?
“All those talking heads who say we’re better without him. That shit is ludicrous,” Klay Thompson said postgame. “That’s crazy. This is the best player in the world. You could put him on the 30th best team, and that team would make the playoffs. … So we don’t pay that any attention, because that’s just stupid.
“He’s a warrior. You saw what he did tonight. He sacrificed his health for us.”
Could it have been for “legacy” purposes? Is that even a real thing superstars think about?
“When you’re on this level of greatness and everybody’s kinda poking and prodding, trying to narrate your story and tell you who you are or who you should be, what decisions you should make, constantly over and over again,” Stephen Curry explained. “It’s part of what comes with this territory. … At the end of the day, the people that know him know what type of guy he is.”
Maybe Durant felt pressured to come back in part because, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, his monthlong absence caused “a mixture of confusion and angst among several of his teammates.” Durant began doing two-a-day workouts to return for the NBA Finals, according to The Undefeated Marc Spears. Amick reported there was “a very real hope” Durant would push through injury like several of his teammates did and return for Game 4, even though he and the Warriors medical staff pegged Game 5 as the earliest return date. He sat out instead, and Golden State lost to fall behind 3-1 in the series.
Amick, who cited sources in his piece, wrote:
When [Durant’s Game 4 return] didn’t happen, and when [the Warriors] saw their season compromised more than ever without him after they’d grown hopeful of his return after seeing him on the court, the irritation grew in large part because they simply didn’t understand why he wasn’t there.
Warriors officials aren’t running from the reality that there’s frustration among some players, but they’re also quick to point out that trainer Rick Celebrini – not Durant – is making this call. And until Celebrini gives Durant the go-ahead, his long and painful stretch of absences will extend into this pivotal Warriors summer where his free agency future remains unclear.
A day later, with his team on the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals, Durant was cleared and decided to suit up. He played 12 minutes, then suffered a significantly worse injury early in the second quarter.
Again, at what cost? For what reason?
There’s also how we got here in the first place. In the four games before suffering the initial calf injury, Durant played in 43, 44, 50 and 43 minutes against Houston series. His 50-minute game went to one overtime (53 total minutes), which left just three minutes of game time for Durant to rest. This after playing 41 and 42 minutes in the final two games of the first-round series against the Clippers. In Game 5 of the Houston series, when Durant exited early with his calf injury, he played in 32 of a possible 34 minutes.
Why is this important? Because in his first game in more than a month, Durant played in 12 of Game 5’s first 14 minutes. In an era dedicated to player health, this was colossal mismanagement.
A teary-eyed Myers offered the following explanation:
“Prior to coming back, he went through four weeks with our medical team. It was thorough and it was experts with multiple MRIs and multiple doctors,” he said. “And we felt good about the process. He was cleared to play tonight. That was a collaborative decision.”
Myers was later asked if Durant’s initial calf injury from May 8 could have evolved into Game 5’s Achilles injury.
“The initial injury was a calf injury. This is not a calf injury,” Myers said. “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury.”
The injuries occurred on the same leg, only about a month apart, and WebMD defines the Achilles tendon as “a tough band of fibrous tissue that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone.”
This is something Durant will think about, hopefully as fuel for a potentially year-long rehab and recovery process. An Achilles tear is the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer. An SB Nation study into how NBA players have historically fared after Achilles injuries revealed the following:
Achilles injuries affect players over 30 the worst, often shortening their careers to just another season or two. Durant will turn 31 just before the start of next season.
Achilles injuries aren’t career shortening for players under 30, at least not immediately
However, players who suffer Achilles injuries rarely reach their pre-injury peak, and certainly not for an extended amount of time.
Recent trends point to Achilles rehabilitation taking closer to six to eight months, rather than nine to 12 months. That’d put Durant back sometime in the middle of next season if there is a complete rupture. But chances are, he’ll play this conservatively.
Players around the league should keep Durant’s predicament in mind should they ever find themselves in a similar position. Is it worth it to sacrifice long-term health for a playoff run?
History says no, but what will everyone else tell you?