June 12, 2019
There are very few players in any sport whose health can singlehandedly change the trajectory of the league. Kevin Durant is one of the rare few who qualifies. He wins and dominates wherever he goes and is one of the game's truly transcendent talents. Durant's greatness feels inevitable when he's dropping 30 points on your favorite team in spite of the best-laid plans to stop him.
And with one plant of his right leg, one ultimate decision to play in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, all that has changed. Suddenly, we are forced to look into a future that doesn't have Kevin Durant in it for a while, and may not have this version of Durant in it ever again. It impacts Durant first and foremost, but it impacts his team, his city, and his league in ways we won't be able to predict with certainty.
But we can try, obviously.
Let's start here because the guy who got injured is undoubtedly the person who is impacted the most by the injury. We can get to the rest later.
KD reveals he already had surgery for his ruptured Achilles. pic.twitter.com/WvutveVVsb— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) June 12, 2019
I'm not sure there's a precedent for this sort of injury in the history of the NBA. If that sounds like an exaggeration consider the following: Durant is 30 years old with prime years left, coming off of back-to-back Finals MVP awards and four consecutive appearances on an All-NBA team. He is (or was) still at the peak of his powers, and has had a case as the league's best overall player for a while now. Durant is an all-time great if he never plays another game, and you can't say that about many 30-year-old players.
But there were a ton of games and accolades we still expected to come, whether in Golden State or elsewhere. And the track record for players who suffer Achilles tears is miserable for basketball players. Durant needs to look no further than down the bench at his teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, to see how physically draining an Achilles injury can be. Players like Wesley Matthews and even former Sixers player/current GM Elton Brand saw their careers permanently altered by the injury.
(There are positive examples, too. Dominque Wilkins put up huge numbers in the years following his own Achilles injury in 1992, and his game was much more predicated on athleticism than Durant's is.)
Instead of wondering where Durant will play next year and what the domino effect is for the rest of the league, we're suddenly asking whether he will ever play at a high level again. I think he is better suited to rebound from this injury than a lot of other players would be, because it will always be hard to defend a guy who is that tall and can shoot like he does from all over the floor. He is younger than many of the players who went through this recovery process. But his explosiveness will obviously be altered, as will his ability to leverage that shooting into scoring all over the floor.
It's impossible to know how he will react to the injury from where we sit today, but his choices this summer will impact the league no matter which route he takes.
This is the "safe" route for Durant. He stands to make $31.5 million if he opts into his contract for 2019-20, and instead of subjecting himself to any risk in free agency, he can stack another hefty paycheck next season while rehabbing with an organization he is familiar with.
There are two immediate effects here on the rest of the league — free agents suddenly slide up the scale of importance, and the path to winning a title becomes a lot more open than it seemed during this past season. Both of those things loom large in Philadelphia.
It's the free agent madness that the Sixers will have to wade through first. If Durant is off of the board, suddenly the Sixers' free agents are even closer to the top of the market than they were before. They can offer a fifth year and added security to Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, but again, this decision may ultimately come down to whether both guys are happy being the supportive pieces to Philadelphia's young core members.
Just to use one example — the New York Knicks all but punted last season and made a transparent attempt to clear a second max slot with their midseason trade involving Kristaps Porzingis. Knicks fans are some of the most loyal in basketball, but how would they respond if their team once again comes away with nothing in free agency, pushing off big moves into the future? It seems like the urgency would still be there to upgrade the team, which could prompt them to make more aggressive sales pitches to the likes of Butler and Harris.
(Devil's advocate: perhaps Durant's injury will cause some reflection on the real value of that fifth year to guys like Butler or Harris. Both are ostensibly healthy now, but one moment can change your career and future earnings outlook. Don't take the long-term for granted.)
Once the Sixers emerge from free agency, however, the championship window is suddenly open. The fear of a New York-based superteam is suddenly gone, unless Kawhi Leonard suddenly decides he wants to play for the Knicks alongside another star. The East will remain tough at the top, but the unstoppable Warriors juggernaut is now simply a very good team, and one with few ways to improve this summer. Do the Warriors come out of the West without Durant?
There are a lot of good teams in the Western Conference, but none of them carry the air of invincibility these Warriors have. Getting out of the East would not be a cakewalk in any way, but there would be a lot of teams in both conferences who suddenly would feel like they have a reason to go for it right now. Yes, these Warriors have shown the talent and resolve to win at the highest levels without him. But doing that for small stretches is different than asking them to carry a thin team for an entire season without him. Their depth is not the same as it used to be, nor is it going to make a leap anytime soon.
On Philadelphia's end, this scenario would almost heighten the need to bring everybody back and really challenge for the Eastern Conference crown next season. If there's not an unstoppable juggernaut waiting at the end of the journey, executives will feel a little better about selling out some of the future to chase a title now.
As devastating as the injury is for Durant, and as long as his layoff is expected to be, there is one thing worth keeping in mind — he is still Kevin Durant. There are not many players whose talent is enough for teams to risk years of max-salary commitment following a devastating injury, but Durant is probably one of them.
Sticking with the Knicks, for example, maybe they decide it's better to have Durant in the fold regardless of the risk they'd have to take on him. Make that sort of bet on him now, and then the hope is you hopefully benefit from obtaining him later. Getting a player of Durant's talent is rare for any franchise, especially for one like the Knicks that hasn't been relevant in ages.
But in this scenario, even if the Knicks bring in another big-time free agent, odds are they're not going to be any sort of contender in the East in 2019-20. Durant going there, then, would fail to create a new threat in the Eastern Conference while the Warriors remain in the state they're in without Durant right now — a very good (but thin) team, one that is capable of being upended.
For a team like the Sixers trying to retain their free agents, this is probably the best-case scenario. A team in your division spends max money on a guy who can't play for a year, and even when he returns there will be doubts about hitting the level he once reached. Teams built to contend now, like the Raptors, Bucks, and even the Pacers would have increased incentive to push chips in for next season.
On the other hand, maybe this changes player movement we are taking for granted elsewhere. Does Kyrie Irving want to attach his future to Durant's in this scenario, and does he reconsider leaving Boston if he can't team up with Durant immediately? Irving leaving has seemed like a foregone conclusion, but is he leaving to go play with a bunch of young guys in Brooklyn if he doesn't have another veteran alpha to suit up with right away? If Irving stays, does that embolden Danny Ainge to go after Anthony Davis on the trade market, future assurances be damned?
(Another potential Irving-specific wrinkle — would this make him reconsider a partnership with LeBron James in Los Angeles? He wanted out from that arrangement once before, but time changes people. This would obviously be helpful for contending teams in the East by removing another All-NBA caliber player from the conference.)
What all of this should reinforce is that teams have to make the most of what they have while they have it, because it can be taken away quicker than you can imagine. In Philly, that point should be driven home on several fronts. How long can Joel Embiid stay healthy? Can you keep Butler and Harris around? Will Ben Simmons want to play second fiddle (at best) for the bulk of his career?
All of these things are unknown. And that's what makes the present so critical. Dynasties can fall apart in an instant, and you'd better hope you accomplished something before they do.
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