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Achilles Tears Often Spell Doom For Basketball Players. But Kevin Durant Looks Like Himself Again.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant took a handoff at the top of the key. The action didn’t hold much in the way of immediate promise — Torrey Craig, an accomplished wing defender, tailed Durant closely, and 6-foot-11 center Deandre Ayton had left his man to help. But Durant accelerated, bursting past Ayton’s hip toward the left block. He took two long strides, stretched to his full length and let go of a fading, leaning 6-foot jumper. As Ayton’s momentum carried him out of bounds, Durant’s shot dropped off the glass and in.

A remarkable play, sure, but remarkability is the basic currency of the NBA’s best players. A couple of years ago, it might not have occasioned a second thought. But as the four-time scoring champ and 2014 MVP has returned from an Achilles injury this season, and subsequently worked through other setbacks, those nights when he flashes his standard-fare star stuff merit new appreciation. 

Durant’s comeback tour has made for a fitting stand-in for the Nets’ season as a whole, with the excitement of a Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving Big Three counterbalanced by delays and frustration. He missed 23 games from February to April with a hamstring strain, the sort of compensatory ailment that can follow a serious leg injury. He sat out 13 more due to rest programs, COVID-19 protocols and, most recently, the thigh contusion from which he returned for the Phoenix game. When he’s made it to the floor, though, Durant has put up a usage rate (31.5) and player efficiency rating (26.7, tops among the Nets’ power trio) right in line with his historical norms. He’s looked like himself, in other words — which counts as something of a hoops miracle.

In league circles, a rupture to the tendon — which Durant sustained to his right leg in the second quarter of his lone appearance in the 2019 NBA Finals — has long signaled a break in the trajectory of those players lucky and dedicated enough to make it back. The injury doesn’t discriminate between guard and big man or star and role player; it makes efficiency numbers drop and skill sets narrow.

Exceptions exist: Dominique Wilkins tore his Achilles at 32 and bounced back the next year with the second-highest player efficiency rating of his career, and Breanna Stewart, returning from her own tear last season, paced the Seattle Storm to a WNBA championship. But by and large, the injury turns a career into a project of managing decline. “At the NBA level,” said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, “just a minimal loss of power and push-off strength is a huge deal when you’re competing against other world-class athletes.”

Players are rarely the same after an Achilles injury

Selected NBA and WNBA players who tore their Achilles tendons, by difference in their total player efficiency ratings before and after the injury

Player efficiency Rating
Player Age at injury Before After Diff.
Breanna Stewart 24 25.3 25.5 +0.2
Rudy Gay 30 16.7 16.4 -0.3
Dominique Wilkins 32 22.0 20.4 -1.6
Chiney Ogwumike 24 23.3 21.6 -1.7
Tamika Catchings 28 27.5 24.9 -2.6
LaPhonso Ellis 26 16.0 13.2 -2.8
Brandon Jennings 25 16.3 12.6 -3.7
DeMarcus Cousins 27 22.4 18.5 -3.9
Wesley Matthews 28 14.7 10.4 -4.3
Riquna Williams 25 20.2 13.7 -6.5
Elton Brand 28 22.7 16.1 -6.6
Kobe Bryant 34 23.4 15.7 -7.7
Chauncey Billups 35 19.0 10.9 -8.1

PER is from all games played before or after the injury. Data through games of April 27, 2021.

Sources: SB Nation, Basketball-Reference.com

“The surgery is still basically bringing one end [of the tendon] up against the other and holding it together until your body lays down enough new collagen to rebuild it,” Geier said. “We haven’t really improved on that.” The biggest changes in Achilles protocols in recent years have been ramped-up rehab schedules, designed to prevent a degree of muscle weakness, and the use of platelet-rich plasma injections and stem cell treatments. However, such measures have been more successful at reducing recovery timelines than boosting prognoses. “What I don’t feel has changed is that a large percentage of players that return drop in terms of minutes played, games played and player efficiency ratings,” Geier said.

Players who have torn their Achilles tendons almost always face a choice: sacrifice parts of your game in the name of efficiency, or sacrifice efficiency to keep playing your game. Call it the difference between Rudy Gay — who, post-injury, moved from a leading role on the wing to a supporting one on the block — and Kobe Bryant, who held fast to his iso-ball preferences despite a disappeared first step and flattened fadeaway.

Durant’s comeback always had a better chance of success than most; he could sacrifice the aspects of his game dependent on quickness and ball-handling and likely remain, on the basis of his almost 7-foot length and shotmaking ability alone, an All-NBA-level player. For the same reason, though, his return had the potential to be sadder than most. Few scorers have ever operated at as thorough an advantage as Durant, whose best games resemble condensed histories of offensive basketball: shimmying first steps, dancerly fadeaways, 3-point barrages. To see such talent applied as an insurance policy would have made for crummy consolation.

Despite moving from the idyll of Golden State to a somewhat sloppier situation with the Nets — Durant, Harden, and Irving may reach the playoffs having played just seven games together — Durant has maintained his production across categories. At the rim, where a wing’s diminished bounce can show up most severely, he’s finishing 75 percent of his attempts, his best conversion rate there since his first year with the Golden State Warriors. In isolation, he’s piled up 1.13 points per possession. (For comparison, Harden averaged 1.22 points per possession when he iso’ed his way to the 2018 MVP.)

His shooting has spiked from all ranges, as if he had spent some of his time away preparing for a more stationary Dirk Nowitzki-esque second act just in case. If the audacity of his numbers makes the performance seem unsustainable over a larger sample size — Durant is making 52.7 percent of his tightly guarded threes, per NBA.com, a figure without much personal precedent — the visible economy of his game suggests otherwise.

The above sequence, from a February game against the Clippers, has it all. Durant drives hard at Paul George’s shoulder, skids to a stop and tosses in a floater — letting go at about the height of the rim — that the four-time All-NBA defender can hardly contest. A few possessions later, Durant glides around a screen and cans a jumper in Kawhi Leonard’s grill. He looks not only undamaged but somehow still ascendant. “My view on this game is really about development,” Durant told ESPN this month. “Like, how good can I be?”

If Durant is able to stay on the floor during the stretch run and postseason, the Nets will have the player they hoped for when they acquired him in a sign-and-trade just weeks removed from his tear: a next-to-unguardable scorer capable of swinging a playoff series on his own. If the hamstring trouble is connected to the Achilles injury, that too may smooth out in coming years. “The further out he goes, the lower that risk would be,” Geier said. While Nets fans have surely grumbled about their star’s unavailability during stretches of the season, they might also acknowledge a baseline of luck. “It’s a really good outcome,” Geier said of Durant. “I never really saw any signs that he wasn’t 100 percent.”

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Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

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