Matt Slocum/Associated Press
OAKLAND — The image is startling, somber, a little haunting.
Kevin Durant, tubes in his nostrils, a powder-blue gown stretched across his chest, pillows propped behind his head, a hospital bracelet on his left forearm, an IV bag hanging nearby. Eyes narrow, face taut, emotionless.
“I’m hurting deeply,” Durant wrote in the Instagram post accompanying that photo on Wednesday, “but I’m OK.”
Somewhere, out of the snapshot frame, was a bandaged right leg, where doctors had surgically repaired his ruptured Achilles tendon that morning.
Just two nights earlier, Durant was dancing in an arena hallway, flinging three-pointers in a critical NBA Finals game, diving for loose balls, barking, bouncing, smiling. For 11 minutes and 57 seconds, he was the NBA superstar we’ve long known: lithe, slinky, dazzling, lethal.
That’s the image basketball fans will cling to, of Durant, the EasyMoneySniper, as he’s known on IG. It’s an image we likely won’t see again for some time—and the image might never quite look the same.
There is perhaps no tougher injury for an NBA player to overcome than a blown Achilles. The difficulty is even higher for an athlete in his 30s. Durant turns 31 in September. He’ll probably be 32 by the time he plays again, based on typical recovery times. And he might never be the same player.
The history of NBA players returning from Achilles injuries is, broadly speaking, rather bleak. Few regain their full athleticism and effectiveness. Nearly all see a decline in production and efficiency.
“I think you’re going to likely see at least a step back,” said Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer who analyzes injury trends at InStreetClothes.com. “At least, that’s what the studies show—that there is going to be a dip in productivity.”
Witnessing the injury was truly devastating—for Durant’s teammates and his coaches, for his legion of fans and most certainly for the team officials who cleared him to play Game 5 of the Finals, despite a calf strain that had kept him out for a month.
But it’s the nature of the injury—the implications of this specific injury—that is most sobering. It’s the part no one wants to talk about: What if Kevin Durant is never Kevin Durant again?
“It’s hard to return to an elite level of play following that type of injury,” Stotts said, “especially in basketball, with the constant, sudden, start-stop jumping motion that the calf and the Achilles are critical and vital to.”
The smooth jumper and the tight handle will always be there. Durant will always be 7 feet tall (or close, even if he won’t admit it) with guard skills. But if history is a guide, he’ll probably be a little less slinky, a little less explosive, more limited laterally. That erosion would be coming even without injury, as Durant moves into his 30s. But the Achilles injury will almost certainly hasten it.
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
In general, athletes who return from an Achilles rupture play fewer games and fewer minutes and perform worse than they did before, according to a study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. (ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pegged the drop-off in production at about 8 percent.) But players tend to improve in their second year back.
“Can he fluidly move?” Stotts said, listing some of the concerns. “Can he explode off that leg to attack the basket? Because I do think the jumper can still be there. It’s obviously going to take some time to get that leg back to where it was.”
Muscle atrophy is a major issue, Stotts said. A player cannot use the injured leg while recovering from the surgery. Regaining the full strength is nearly impossible.
Every player is different. That’s a necessary caveat. But Durant need look no further than his teammate DeMarcus Cousins to see the potential consequences. Cousins averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds (in 25.7 minutes) over 30 games for the Warriors this season, after a 12-month layoff to rehab his Achilles.
Even accounting for fewer minutes and shot attempts, Cousins bore little resemblance to the player who made four straight All-Star teams. His movement was sluggish. More significantly: Cousins tore his left quadriceps muscle—in the same leg as his Achilles—just three months after returning.
Age was a factor in some of those cases. Durant is much younger than Billups or Bryant were at the time of their Achilles injuries. And forwards tend to do better than guards in returning from Achilles surgery.
But Durant is also past a key age threshold. According to studies, there’s little success for players regaining their form after suffering an Achilles injury beyond age 29.
On average, a post-Achilles player misses 10 games a year after he returns to action. And a high percentage of post-Achilles players suffer a significant soft-tissue injury in their first year back, as Cousins did. That could be anything from a hamstring strain to a sports hernia to a quad or calf strain.
“He’s not going to be an 82-game-a-year guy,” said a doctor working for another NBA team. “I always say that they can be the same player in smaller doses. So, fewer minutes, fewer games. You will see flashes. The sustained greatness is really, really tough.”
Durant, the doctor said, “can still be a really, really great player. But it’s going to be in 28 minutes, and it’s going to be not in back-to-backs. And it’s going to be saving himself for the playoffs.”
One other concern: Durant has an extensive history of soft-tissue injuries, from calf and hamstring strains to ankle sprains. He missed most of the 2014-15 season because of a broken foot and then played 72, 62 and 68 games over the next three seasons.
According to Stotts’ database, Durant has missed 103 regular-season games with lower-extremity injuries, including the broken foot, ankle sprains on both sides, a left knee sprain and various other strains.
“He is injury-prone,” said the doctor. “How can we not say that at this point?”
Weight can be an issue for post-Achilles athletes, so Durant’s slim frame provides him a possible advantage. The less force on the calf when a player is making a quick move, the better. In fact, he could even benefit from losing five to 10 pounds, to offset the loss of calf strength. That said, Durant’s game is not predicated solely on explosiveness, so he could still be effective with a little less pop.
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Even so, Durant might have to adjust his game when he returns to adapt to his new physical reality. Less herky-jerky movement, maybe a slightly slower pace. He can still be Kevin Durant, the doctor said, but maybe “a slightly different Kevin Durant.”
A team pursuing Durant in free agency this summer could make his recovery part of its pitch: Sign with us, and we’ll hire the best Achilles specialist in the world to work with you, and give you all the time you need to come back.
“The first question out of Kevin’s mouth should be, ‘Who’s going to prevent another injury for me?’” the doctor said. “There’s a reason you tore your Achilles. There’s a reason he’s had multiple calf strains. What is going to allow him to perform is preventing the next injury.”
There is only one notable precedent for an All-Star returning to form after an Achilles rupture. Dominique Wilkins was 32 when his snapped, in 1992. He came back after nine months, averaging 29.9 points in 71 games the next season. He made the All-Star Game that year, and the next. But his production declined after that point.
Two recent cases provide more reason for optimism. Rudy Gay and Wesley Matthews each recovered well from Achilles ruptures and are still effective players, if not necessarily up to their previous levels. But neither was an All-Star, much less a two-time Finals MVP in the annual conversation for best player in the world. The bar for a “successful” recovery is necessarily higher for Durant—and for whichever team employs him next season and beyond.
Durant has long been expected to leave the Warriors this summer. People close to the situation do not expect the injury to change his thinking. Nor is the injury likely to dissuade Durant’s suitors—chiefly the Knicks, Nets and Clippers—from offering him a max deal of four years and $160 million. Even a slightly diminished Durant would be a player worth building around, in the view of many team executives.
And yet Durant’s new team probably won’t see any benefits until the 2020-21 season. The average recovery time for an Achilles is 10 months, Stotts said, which would make Durant’s earliest return next April, just as the regular season is winding down. Depending on the situation, Durant’s new team might very well opt to hold him out and give him the extra time to recover.
“It’s more than likely he’s going to miss next year,” Stotts said, which could be to Durant’s benefit. Studies show better results if the player takes at least 12 months before returning to play.
“The whole thing sucks so much, just as a basketball fan,” Stotts said, speaking for just about anyone who enjoys watching elite players do elite things. “Not having Kevin Durant playing is a bummer.”
Before this injury, Durant was on pace to one day challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record. He was surely going to crack the top five, the top 10 at a minimum. Now it’s possible he won’t score a single point for another 16 months. What he’ll be beyond that is anyone’s guess.
“It’s going to be a journey,” Durant wrote on Instagram, “but I’m built for this. I’m a hooper.”
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.