OAKLAND, Calif. - The NBA's favorite parlor game will soon end. Within the next week, more clarity should emerge on where Kevin Durant will sign as a free agent.
Once that parlor game ends, though, another one might begin that yields even longer speculation than Durant's pending free agency. The topic: How will Durant recover from a surgically repaired right Achilles tendon?
"I have a lot of faith in the man as a player and a person," Dominique Wilkins told Bay Area News Group. "He's definitely going to do the necessary thing to get back. He loves the game too much."
Wilkins' words bear significance beyond his playing credentials as an NBA Hall-of-Famer and high-flying dunker. Wilkins is the lone player in NBA history to play better after suffering an Achilles injury. After collecting two NBA titles, two Finals MVP's, one regular-season MVP and 22,940 points, why should Durant's recovery become any different?
"It's going to come down to how hard you are willing to work to get back," Wilkins said. "This injury takes a lot of patience. But I think Kevin Durant is going to be fine. He's one of those superstar players that will not let this obstacle hold him back."
Based on an informal sampling among outside medical doctors, there are varying obstacles that might greet Durant. They all stressed they do not have access to Cousins' medical records, but they anticipate Durant will face various speed bumps that will be more difficult to navigate than persistent double teams.
Dr. John D Kelly IV, professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, said "this could very well be a career-killer" because of an anticipated decrease in jumping ability, especially if Durant returns earlier than the projected year-long absence. According to a 2013 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, 37 out of 43 NBA players that had a major Achilles injury between 1988 and 2011 showed "a decreased level of performance. The other six did not return to the league. Dr. Douglas Cerynik, CEO of Stabiliz Orthopaedics and co-author of the study, also sensed Durant "might be limited" with his lateral movement and jumping.
"It's hard to predict," said Dr. Paul Cammack, an orthopedic surgeon that specializes in foot and ankle surgeries at Twin Cities Orthopedics. "We have a lot of professional athletes who come back from that injury and are able to play at a high level again. Are they the same afterwards? I would say that's the exception and not the rule that they get back to the same level they were at before. There are those that do, but it's going to be a challenge, for sure. It's going to be tough to overcome. He's got a long road ahead of him."
Wilkins navigated that road just fine, though.
When Wilkins ruptured his right Achilles tendon nearly midway through the 1991-92 season, he faced immediate skepticism on if he would ever remain one of the NBA's best players. Not only did Wilkins return in nine months. He increased his scoring average from 28.1 points per game to 29.9. Wilkins eventually played seven more seasons and landed two more All-Star appearances. As Wilkins said, "I used all of that as fuel to prove them wrong."
Wilkins has often spoken about his recovery with other NBA players that injured their Achilles, including when Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins spent last year rehabbing his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon. Wilkins has not talked with Durant, though, since he ruptured his right Achilles tendon against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Durant has been kind of busy. He had surgery two weeks ago in New York. He has since mulled his free-agency future. Should the two connect, though, Wilkins plans to offer pragmatic feedback about the upcoming workload and an optimistic view on the outcome.
"There's no doubt in my mind he's going to do the necessary things to get back," Wilkins said of Durant. "He is a guy who is a star player in this league. Star players and great players find a way."
Because Durant is a star player, a handful of medical doctors also expressed cautious optimism on how he will deal with his latest injury.
"There's no reason to think he can't back to where he was," said Dr. Steven Weinfeld, the chief of foot and ankle surgery at The Mount Sinai Health System. "He should recover fine and get back to where he was. But it's a time thing. You have to get the repair done. You have to get the skin healed. Then you have to start working the muscle and getting it to strengthen itself. You can't rush that. It's not something that happens quicker if you're a professional versus somebody who is not. The type of player that he is, though, makes it more of a favorable prognosis."
Those reasons seem obvious. Durant had averaged a league-leading 34.2 points on 51.3% shooting during the NBA playoffs before straining his right calf against Houston in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. After missing nine consecutive playoff games, Durant scored 11 points in only 12 minutes in Game 5 before suffering his ill-fated injury. With exception to his rookie season when he averaged 20.3 points per game, Durant has mostly maintained or even exceeded his career average (27) through the rest of 12-year NBA career. In the past seven seasons, Durant has also shot at least 50% from the field.
Therefore, Wilkins considered it "very realistic" for Durant to maintain his career averages even following his return.
"I would expect Kevin to come back at an elite level and be able to play for a long time at an elite level," said NBA TV analyst Wes Wilcox, who previously served as the Atlanta Hawks' general manager. "Certainly there is an unknown there with the Achilles, but we've seen players come back from it. I would expect Kevin to be the next success story with having to deal with that injury."
The optimism about Durant's injury does not just stem from his resume, though. It also traces back to how Durant plays the game.
Unlike what Kobe Bryant or Wesley Matthews experienced, Durant does not need to worry about chasing fast point guards on the perimeter. Unlike what Cousins experienced last season with the Warriors, Durant will not have to feel as much physical pounding with defending a burly big man inside while also adapting to a quick pace that often burdens centers.
Instead, Durant can rely on what has made him No. 36 on the NBA/ABA's all-time scoring list and counting. He can use his understated 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame to take shots over smaller players. He can use his footwork to create separation in the post and along the perimeter. He can play more methodical to offset any diminished athleticism.
"It's a lot harder for a big center that plays down low to come back from an Achilles injury as opposed to someone who is more versatile. Specific to Kevin, I think what plays to his advantage with his recovery is with how tall he is and how much of a shooter he is," said Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, a foot and ankle surgeon with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute. "He can get up and get over people by the way of his height. So he may not have to rely as much on the explosive power of his Achilles, at least early on."
Another variable that might help Durant's case? His age. He injured his right Achilles tendon in the prime of his career. He is currently 30 years old and will turn 31 in late September. Therefore, medical experts do not anticipate Durant will experience as many challenges had he injured his Achilles tendon in his mid 30s.
At age 34, Bryant returned eight months following his Achilles injury and played only six games in the 2013-14 season before needing season-ending surgery on his left knee. Both at 35, Hall-of-Fame point guard Isiah Thomas tore his right Achilles tendon (1994) and future Hall-of-Fame point guard Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles tendon (2012). Thomas had already decided beforehand he would retire, capping a 14-year NBA career with two championships and a Finals MVP. After missing the final 35 games n 2012 with the Los Angeles Clippers, Billups remained hobbled by injuries in 2012-13 with the Clippers (22) and 2013-14 with Detroit (19) before retiring. Rudy Gay tore his left Achilles tendon at age 31 with Sacramento (2017) and then accepted a reduced role with the Spurs the following two seasons.
Kaplan conceded "it's a little unpredictable" whether Durant will have a more challenging rehab than if he had injured his Achilles in his mid 20's. According to the 2013 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine "players with Achilles tendinopathy have a better chance to return if they are younger in age and early in their professional career." Kelly noted that players that have injure their Achilles even in their early 30's often experience "some degeneration of the tendon."
"Time will be the ultimate tell., but I think his unique persona and his unique play helps," Cerynik said. "If you can put a metric on passion and competitiveness? I think that, mixed also with age and his history in the league, should pull in his favor."
Outside medical experts found it challenging enough to project how Durant would return from his Achilles injury. They cannot project where Durant might sign as a free agent, though. They have not studied the salary cap. They have not studied each free agency suitor's roster. They are not around the team to gauge Durant's sentiments, either. And for those that are around the Warriors, they have struggled gauging a true feeling as well.
Nonetheless, it seems unavoidable to ask. Would Durant's injury significantly influence his free-agency decision?
Would Durant find it necessary to unexpectedly exercise his $31.5 million player option so he could fully rehab before hitting the free-agent market next summer? Or would Durant re-sign with the Warriors at a five-year deal at $221 million so he could have an additional year of guaranteed max-level income regardless of how he plays after his rehab? Would Durant feel less pressure to return at any point next season, given the Warriors' relatively sturdy championship foundation?
"The Warriors are a good fit for being able to provide him time for recovery," Kaplan said. "No. 1: The culture of the Warriors is positive. They aren't going to rush him back and don't need him now. They obviously have a developed team and have Steph Curry. So there is not a rush there and that helps him."
Bleacher Report recently noted that the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers are wary of signing Durant because of his injury. It appears the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are more than willing to sign Durant to a four-year, $164 million max deal. If they do, though, would they have the patience to handle Durant sitting out all of next season? Would they have enough roster depth to handle such an absence?
"There is not a metric to gauge team interest or team concern with where that particular players' contract is or that players' standing on the team or whether they play again and for how long," Cerynik said. "Certain teams could be willing to take that risk on how he would be used in the future. But with the timing of his rupture, though, he's going to miss an entire year. So you have to have more than $30 million to burn next season."
After all, Durant only had surgery on his right Achilles tendon on June 12 at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Dr. Martin O'Malley, who also has been a physician for the Brooklyn Nets and USA Basketball, performed the surgery. Since then, Durant has likely remained immobile.
Generally, Cammack said most patients are off crutches by this time and begin wearing a walking boot. In about a month, Durant would likely then begin rehab exercises to improve his range of motion. Some of those exercises will eventually likely include calf raises, weight machines and pool therapy. Kelly also noted it usually takes about four to five months before patients can begin any light running exercises.
During that process, would Durant feel more comfortable being with a training staff and group of teammates that rushed to his support following his injury? Or does Durant feel the Warriors misled him or pressured him in any way to return? The Bleacher Report story indicated that might be the case.
"Because of the calf injury, the way he was playing might've been slightly different," Kaplan said. "He might've been shortening his stride. He might've been pivoting and rotating a little bit differently than he normally would have. So that I do think when you have injury to anywhere along your leg, you're going to load up and below a little bit different. I think that's what happened. He basically probably was playing slightly different and stepped slightly wrong and as a result of that, in an attempt to avoid straining his calf, it transferred more weight to his Achilles and resulted in an Achilles tear."
Still, Kelly insisted that "a link between calf and Achilles is nebulous; they are two distinctly different injuries." These doctors have not seen the MRI results. The Warriors have insisted, though, those tests did not indicate any correlation between Durant's respective calf and Achilles injury. They also have noted that Durant was not cleared to play in Game 5 until the Warriors' training staff, coaching staff, front office, Durant, his business partner, Rich Kleiman, and Durant's outside medical doctors all signed off.
"I really applaud him that he didn't quit and he didn't stand on the side," Wilkins said of Durant. "He probably didn't know to the level he was hurt. At the same time, even if he did, it shows his commitment being out there with his guys. I have no problem with that at all."
And because of that mindset and his body of work, Wilkins will have plenty of positive feedback to tell Durant should he feel the need to talk about the journey ahead.
"I know Kevin very well. When a person is comfortable, they will reach out and ask for any type of insight you can possibly give him," Wilkins said. "I'm always willing to give that insight. At the end of the day, the NBA is a big family. Any time you get a chance to share some knowledge or some feedback on injuries. We are obligated to do that, especially when someone has an injury that is serious as this."
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