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Kevin Durant injury: What to know, from NBA Finals and free agency fallout, to recovery, timetable, outlook

In the worst of worst-case scenarios, Kevin Durant, who had returned to the NBA Finals after more than four weeks off with what was initially diagnosed as a mild calf strain, collapsed to the floor in the second quarter of Game 5, and you knew it was bad right away. Durant grabbed at his right Achilles tendon. He had to be helped off the floor. And as cameras followed him back to the locker room, it wasn’t just the NBA Finals that shifted. 

It was the entire NBA. 

We know that Durant was slated to be the biggest free-agent domino in what is expected to be a landscape-shifting summer. He may still be. But that’s certainly up in the air. As are these NBA Finals, as somehow the Warriors rallied in Durant’s absence to win Game 5 106-105 and crawl to within 3-2 as the series shifts back to Oakland for the final game in the history of Oracle Arena. 

From the first reports in the injury itself, to all the fallout in terms of how it impacts this series and this summer, here is everything you need to know about the Durant situation as it stands. 

The Play

Durant had scored 11 points on 3-of-3 shooting from deep and looked terrific in his return. The Warriors were humming offensively and it honestly looked like the fairytale stories of Durant coming back to save the day were within the reach of reality. And then this happened:

Here’s a closer look at what appears to be the Achilles tendon snapping:

Initial Diagnosis

To be clear, there isn’t an official diagnosis yet. Durant is scheduled to have an MRI on Tuesday. But initial concerns indicate the worst-case scenario: A ruptured right Achilles tendon.

If it is a fully ruptured Achilles …

How long will Durant be out?

“It’s 8-12 months,” Dr. Alan Beyer, an orthopedic surgeon and executive director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute, told CBS Sports on Tuesday. “Usually closer to the year from what we’ve seen with other NBA players having this injury.”

DeMarcus Cousins, of course, suffered this same injury in February of 2018 while with the Pelicans, and he returned to action with the Warriors in January of 2019. John Wall recently ruptured his Achilles in an offseason accident at his home, and the expectation around the league is that he could miss all of next year, and that’s with a head start on Durant in the recovery process. Bottom line: There’s a chance, perhaps a good chance, that Durant will miss all of next season if indeed it is a full Achilles rupture. 

Will he ever be the same player?

“Very tough to say. As we saw with Kevin and initial injury, everyone responds differently,” Dr. Beyer told CBS Sports. “I will say this: When you’re reconstructing an Achilles, to tension your repair exactly back to the link that it was before, it is very difficult to get that exactly right. Then, in the healing process itself, you get some scarring and you get some contraction of some tissue, so the tendon can wind up a little bit tighter than it started. 

“Now, in an everyday average person, this is fine, because you’re only asking them to return to everyday functions like walking, regular jogging, just normal, non-explosive movements,” Dr. Beyer continued. “In an NBA player who has to jump explosively and cut and move in quick bursts, that’s a huge obstacle to overcome. And it’s not just the straight vertical leap. If you lose just a tiny bit of your leaping, for instance, the shooting arc that you’ve used your whole life is actually a little bit destroyed. So it impacts everything. It can be a devastating injury. I mean you can count the guys who have had this injury and come back to be even close to what they were before. It’s not many.”

CBS Sports NBA Analyst and former NBA player Raja Bell was more direct. 

“I don’t think Kevin Durant will ever be the same player,” Bell said. “That doesn’t mean he won’t still be really good. He’s 6-foot-10 and shoots the skin off the ball. But in terms of him being the player we’ve seen to this point, no, I don’t think he can be that after this. Find me one athlete who has been 100 percent the same after an Achilles tear.”

Durant is 30 years old. He’ll be 31 by the start of next season. He’s not a pup, but he’s not over the hill by any stretch. He’s also relatively light, so it’s not like a lot of weight is on that Achilles as in the case of, say, a DeMarcus Cousins. At the same time, K.D. relies much more on his explosiveness and change of direction, both offensively and defensively, than traditional big men. This is really an unknown, but even if Durant comes back at 85 or 90 percent of his old self, that’s still an elite NBA player. 

For some sobering perspective on players who’ve returned from an Achilles injury, look at this chart below (VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, and is just another way of saying how impactful these players were post-Achilles; as you’ll see, all these guys became less impactful after the injury). 

How will Durant’s injury affect the free agent market?

The few people I’ve spoke to in the league since this happened are of the opinion that there will still be a robust market for Durant’s services, and that there will be teams still willing, and in fact eager, to offer him a max contract — which would be four years, $164 million if he signs outside of Golden State — even with the knowledge that Durant will likely miss the first year of that deal in rehab, and perhaps it wouldn’t be until into the second year that he makes a full recovery. We’ve seen Gordon Hayward, for instance, go through a year of rehab and then another year of struggling to rediscover his game.  

“People seem to be unaffected by [the injury],” one Western Conference executive told CBS Sports on Tuesday. “Delayed but expensive gratification, I guess.” 

There is some thought that perhaps Durant would consider exercising his 2019-20 player option with the Warriors for $31.5 million, rehab all year, possibly come back for next year’s playoffs, and then enter free agency in 2020. Or, if he wants to secure as much money as possible with the unknown of his injury and how he’ll recover looming, he could sign a five-year, $221 million max with the Warriors. 

One exec texted CBS Sports this:

“I would think Bob Myers gave [Durant’s business partner and manager, Rich] Kleiman some kind of assurance if K.D. plays [in Game 5 and the rest of the series], regardless we max K.D. out.” 

Translation: The Warriors knew it was a risk to put Durant back out there. So did Durant, who obviously didn’t feel ready to return through the first four games of the series, and there were even reports that his attempt to go through practice on Sunday didn’t go well and he was shut down pretty early. 

This isn’t to say the Warriors were irresponsible, and surely Durant, ultimately, made the final call. He wanted to help his team. The belief with this executive is that in the worst-case scenario, the Warriors would honor that sacrifice and offer Durant the full max that perhaps he would be risking by playing hurt and injuring himself worse, which is obviously what happened. 

A few specific free agency fallouts:

  • New York Knicks: This was a huge hit to the Knicks. Here they have been planning for two years to open up the cap space necessary to sign not just Durant, but a second max free agent to go with him this summer. Now, even if they get Durant, he likely won’t play for them next season. Does that impact the decision of a second star to join him? Do the Knicks now tank another year and try to go get Anthony Davis as a free agent in 2020, and perhaps Durant if he opts in for one more year with Golden State and then hits the open market? Do they get as aggressive as possible to trade for Davis this summer and put free agency on the back burner? What once seemed like kind of a slam dunk in terms of the Knicks getting Durant and perhaps one other star suddenly now looks very dicey. 
  • Wide-open West: When the thought was that Durant would leave Golden State as a free agent, we knew the West would be more open than it has been at any point in this five-year Golden State run. Well, Durant likely isn’t playing anywhere this coming year. So the West is wide open. With that in mind …
  • Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers only have room for one max free agent unless they trade Danilo Gallinari. If they can’t land Kawhi, would they be willing to use their one max slot on a guy in Durant who likely won’t play fo them next season? If not, how will they use tat cap space? One-year deals to take a shot in 2020 at Anthony Davis or perhaps Durant if he stays one more year with Golden State? Or settle for lesser star? 
  • Brooklyn Nets: The Nets traded Allen Crabbe to the Hawks and in doing so opened up the possibility of creating two max salary spots this summer. That rub is they have to let restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell walk. If the two max players were Kyrie and Durant, it’s a no-brainer. But it’s a tougher call to let Russell walk if your max target is, say, Jimmy Butler, who isn’t going to change a franchise on his own and is much older than Russell. Will Kyrie want to play as the lone superstar in Brooklyn, or in the scenario in which Brooklyn keeps Russell, do he and Irving fit as two ball-dominant guards? The possibility of Durant would’ve made this all a lot clearer, at least from a planning standpoint. 
  • Los Angeles Lakers: With LeBron James‘ prime running short, the Lakers are desperate to become a title team as quickly as possible, and with Durant out and the West wide open, does that incentivize them to get even more aggressive in dealing for Anthony Davis? For Bradley Beal? The window feels open right now. Will the Lakers try to force themselves through it?
  • Kyrie Irving: Building off the Lakers, does a reunion with LeBron make more sense than ever for Kyrie? He has been talked about as a potential partner with Durant with the Knicks, and he’s been heavily linked to the Nets of late. But again, Durant has been seen as Irving’s preferred partner, wherever that might’ve ended up. If that’s out, with the West open and no second star to easily hook up with, LeBron is built in and they know they can win together. 
  • Boston Celtics: Very simply, if the allure for Kyrie leaving Boston was hooking up with Durant, does this make it more likely that he just stay in Boston and they trade for Anthony Davis?
  • Kawhi becomes the prize: Some people thought Kawhi Leonard was the prize to begin with, but he surely is now. The Clippers, Lakers and Raptors, according to most people I’ve talked to around the league, feel like the favorites, in no particular order. Think about the Lakers trading for Davis and landing Kawhi as a free agent. Yikes. 
  • Houston Rockets: They’ve already said their whole team is on the table as Houston is dead-set on putting a title team on the floor no matter what it takes. Durant being out, like it will for everyone else, would appear to incentivize Houston to get aggressive now. Does that precipitate a blockbuster move for Houston? Is this the catapult to trade Chris Paul and/or Clint Capela

Finally, the Finals moving forward

On the road, after the Durant injury, after trailing by six with three minutes to play, with Kawhi having scored 10 straight points — for the Warriors to somehow win that Game 5, wow. That was incredible. But can they win two more to win the Finals? Here are the odds to win the series as of Tuesday, via Westgate:

  • Warriors: +275
  • Raptors: -350

Even with Durant out, the Warriors’ series price got better for the obvious reason that they now only have to win two games rather than three. But the Raptors are still a heavy favorite. Our SportsLine projections have the Raptors winning the series in 75 percent of simulations. Toronto has looked like the better team for most of the series, and the Warriors’ depth is almost non-existent. Also, with Durant out the defense is once again so vulnerable against Toronto’s multiple playmakers. Boogie Cousins, who was unplayable in Games 3 and 4, is going to have to give big minutes. Same for Quinn Cook. And Steph and Klay are going to have to shoot the lights out. 

But it’s doable. 

Game 6 is the last game in the history of Oracle arena. That place is going to be rocking. Do you really see the Warriors losing that game at home? If they get through it, now it’s Game 7, and anything can happen. 

“I think the Raptors are too good and too deep for Golden State without Durant,” a league scout told CBS Sports on Tuesday. “I was super impressed with [the Warriors] winning [Game 5] under those conditions. Those guys are champions, man. But it’s just an uphill climb with everything they do. I know the home court is big and everyone’s talking about the Oracle sendoff and all that, but I just think Toronto gets it done in Game 6. I really do.”

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team