TORONTO — The grief that followed Kevin Durant’s Achilles tendon injury emanated outward in waves.
First there was Durant himself, in shock as he lived his worst nightmare. Then there were his Golden State Warriors teammates, rushing instinctively to aid an already lost situation. Then there were the Toronto Raptors, paying their respects at a basketball wake. And, finally, there was GM Bob Myers after the Warriors’ improbable Game 5 win, choking back tears as he accepted responsibility for Durant’s injury while praising his star forward’s character for attempting what turned out to be an ill-fated comeback.
The lasting sensation at Scotiabank Arena was a deep and unsettling nausea, knowing that Durant’s decision to return from a right calf strain, only to suffer a far more serious injury after just 12 minutes of action, bears massive implications for his career and for the NBA’s entire summer landscape.
The initial fear is that Durant tore his Achilles tendon, an injury that typically requires a 12-month recovery and could erase his entire 2019-20 season. There is no good timing for such a traumatic event, but the circumstances here are beyond disheartening for the 2014 MVP.
Make no mistake: Durant’s decision to return to play in Game 5 should be regarded as a career-defining moment, on par with his dagger jumpers over James in the last two NBA Finals. For a professional athlete, especially one staring at free agency in three weeks, there is no greater sacrifice than putting one’s body in harm’s way. After a season in which his loyalty to the Warriors was doubted — even by teammate Draymond Green last fall — Durant accepted the risk and paid for it dearly.
“Kevin Durant loves to play basketball, and the people that questioned whether he wanted to get back to this team were wrong,” Myers said. “He’s one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person. It’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him.”
Early in his career, Durant bristled when commentators and fans tried to give him the “Slim Reaper” nickname. He offered a far less catchy alternative: “The Servant,” a nod to his religious faith and the unselfishness he hoped to represent. He lived up to that moniker on Monday, putting Golden State’s three-peat hopes before his own self-interest.
“He gave us what he had,” teammate Stephen Curry said. “He went out there and sacrificed his body, and we know how it turned out. I just feel so bad for him. Nobody should have to go through something like that, especially with this stage that we have.”
It might take years to fully comprehend the weight of that decision, largely because Durant’s career ceiling exceeds every active player besides James. With perfect health and a desire to continue playing deep into his 30s, Durant had the potential to be a top-three all-time scorer, a top-five all-time player and to exceed James in both titles and Finals MVPs.
His obscene scoring talent, robotic consistency and unguardable frame produced four scoring titles during his Oklahoma City Thunder days, and an offseason move to become the undisputed face of a new team could have led to even more.
Those theoretical accomplishments, benchmarks and honors can no longer be assumed. Durant now bears the injured athlete’s haunting burden: proving himself all over again.
The silver lining is that this injury is unlikely to curb Durant’s earning power. The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers spent all season positioning themselves for his services, and they should still be willing to offer a four-year max deal and to wait on his return to full health. For a perfect reminder of the inherent value of betting on A-list talent regardless of complicating factors, look no further than Kawhi Leonard’s remarkable bounce-back season with the Raptors.
The Warriors, meanwhile, should be as willing as ever to re-sign Durant, whose presence early in Game 5 showed how vital he is to their success. While Myers seemed overcome by guilt in the moment, Golden State’s summer plans will be driven by pragmatism. Due to the NBA’s salary cap rules, the Warriors can offer Durant a five-year max contract. But if he leaves and they decide to re-sign Klay Thompson, they won’t have enough flexibility to add another star.
There’s little doubt that waiting on Durant’s recovery — and accepting the possibility that he might return in a diminished state — would be preferable to cobbling together a rotation using smaller cap exceptions and minimum contracts. The Warriors, of course, want to open the billion-dollar Chase Center with a Superteam that their fan base has come to expect.
While Durant’s possible landing spots and earning power might not change significantly, the impact of his injury will reverberate. In recent weeks, Durant has been linked in rumors — of varying reliability — to a host of all-stars in summer team-up scenarios, including James, Leonard, Anthony Davis and the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving.
Now, each of those players must ask the same question facing Durant’s suitors: Are they willing to wait a year for his return? It’s far easier for an organization to conjure up patience than it is for superstar players who will have enticing alternatives.
Would Davis, fresh off a lost season with the New Orleans Pelicans, be able to endure another one while waiting on Durant? Would Irving prefer to play with Durant on the 2021 Knicks or to be the face of the Brooklyn Nets right now? Would Leonard shelve a dreamy team-up with Durant on the Clippers or Knicks in favor of a return with the Raptors? Would James, at age 34, prefer that the Los Angeles Lakers acquire Durant or pursue more immediate solutions like a trade for Bradley Beal?
The fates of all these teams and superstars were intertwined even before Durant’s injury, and now each party must reassess in the wake of a career-altering turn of events that will be remembered, in grim detail, for decades to come.