While the pundits sat around and questioned Kevin Durant’s commitment to his team and his profession when he missed games 1 through 4 of the just concluded NBA Finals, regular readers of this space knew not to include me among that questioning crowd.
On May 21, I had warned that Durant’s season was probably done. That wasn’t my opinion. It was scientific fact. As I reported back then, Danish researchers had determined in a 2017 study that the average time to return to play from a calf strain, even with aggressive rehabilitation, was 62 days.
So, when Warriors brass expressed shock at the turn of events during Game 5 of the Finals, I didn’t buy it any more than I did their earlier surprise at Durant’s seemingly slow recovery.
As the science said, it wasn’t that slow. And coming back in just over four weeks from a calf strain, that was evident on MRI, turned out to be way too fast. That’s not my opinion. Durant’s torn Achilles tendon and subsequent surgery is a fact.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr claimed to be surprised that a calf strain could ultimately result in a torn Achilles. I would be somewhat — but not entirely — surprised, too, if Durant’s original injury was high up in the muscle. However, at the time he was initially injured, on May 8, the Warriors initially voiced concern that the injury was to his Achilles. That makes me think that the strain was in the vicinity of where tendon and muscle meet.
I have no doubt that Durant’s attempting to play was a mutual decision by all parties: Warriors management, athletic trainers, physicians, strength and conditioning coaches, and Durant and his agent. Nobody forced the star player on the court.
Yet, the pressure to play was there. Kawhi Leonard was in a similar situation a year ago, recovering from quadriceps tendonitis. His medical team advised him not to play even as the Spurs medical staff was clearing him to do so. Subsequently traded to the Raptors, it is more than apparent now that he made the right choice.
The Pacers’ Victor Oladipo, suffering from the same condition as Leonard, could have used the advice of Leonard’s medical team earlier this season. Also afflicted with pain in the area of his quadriceps tendon initially in November, he was cleared to play by the Pacers after missing multiple games, only to tear that tendon during a game in January.
As devastating as Durant’s injury is, nobody needs to hold a bake sale for the 6-foot-9 forward. If he doesn’t opt out of his current contract, he collects $31.5 million next season from the Warriors whether he plays or not. If he does opt out, multiple outlets report that he will still receive NBA-maximum offers from multiple teams, that would pay in the neighborhood of $190 million over the course of five years.
Whoever is paying Durant next year, it will be to sit for the majority if not all of the 2019-20 season. Kobe Bryant tore his left Achilles late in the 2012-13 season and attempted to return only eight months later, only to suffer a tibial plateau fracture in his left knee. He was never the same.
At age 30, Durant is four years younger than Bryant was at the time of his Achilles injury. Additionally, Durant’s teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, tore his left Achilles in January 2018, at age 27, and returned for 30 games at the end of the just concluded regular season, a shadow of his former self. Too soon to say, though, whether or not he will make a full recovery.
It would be foolish, though, to rely on these two previous cases alone. So, what does the science say? A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, reviewed 18 NBA players who tore their Achilles from 1988-2011. Only 11 ever returned and three of them lasted just one season. Consequently, all those suitors lining up to empty their pockets to Durant may want to think again.
The science also offers a similar cautionary tale for those who might be interested in pursuing Durant’s free agent teammate Klay Thompson. He faces a similar recovery road after tearing the ACL in his left knee in Game 6 on Thursday night.
Another 2013 study, this one published in the journal Sports Health, is more optimistic regarding NBA players returning from that injury. An amazing 98 percent do. However, they play significantly fewer games per season and minutes per game thereafter.
In either Durant’s or Thompson’s case, a key to complete recovery and avoiding recurrence is not to rush it. Just this month, Sports Health published online a literature review to answer the question of when it is safe to return from an ACL tear and subsequent reconstruction.
“As a result of the significantly high re-rupture rate in young individuals,” the review authors wrote, “(return to sport) should be considered preferably beyond nine months post-surgery.”