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What Kevin Durant’s Injury Means For KD, The Finals And Free Agency

The biggest loss in Game 5 of the NBA Finals may not have belonged to the Toronto Raptors. Although the Golden State Warriors defeated Toronto on Monday to extend the finals for at least one more game, Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who left with a leg injury, likely tore his Achilles tendon in the second quarter. Pending an unexpected result from Durant’s MRI on Tuesday, the injury will have far-reaching implications for Durant, the Warriors and the NBA as a whole this summer.

Achilles tears are not quick injuries to recover from. According to a list compiled by ESPN’s Stats and Information Group, players typically needed almost nine months to recover, and they tended to have a significant reduction in both playing time and performance in the season following the trauma.

Achilles tears take a while to recover from

Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and recovery time for notable NBA players who suffered a torn Achilles tendon

Season Player Age Before injury After Recovery Days
2017-18 DeMarcus Cousins 27 3.3 1.1 357
2016-17 Rudy Gay 30 0.7 0.7 273
2014-15 Wesley Matthews 28 3.0 1.6 237
2012-13 Kobe Bryant 34 5.1 -0.2 240
2011-12 Chauncey Billups 35 0.3 0.2 296
2006-07 Elton Brand 27 5.5 0.0 243
1996-97 LaPhonso Ellis 26 1.1 0.2 222
1991-92 Dominique Wilkins 32 2.0 3.7 283
Historical avg. 30 2.6 0.9 269

Season listed is the season in which injury occurred

Source: ESPN Stats & Information,

Players who were about Durant’s age when they got injured, such as Rudy Gay of the Spurs, recovered most of their previous form within a couple of seasons. (Gay had a very solid +1.0 Box Plus/Minus and 1.4 VORP this season.) Others, however, either took longer to reclaim their skills (such as Elton Brand) or were never really the same player they’d been before (such as LaPhonso Ellis).

So it’s tough to say exactly what this means for Durant’s career going forward. But we do know that Durant’s injuries continue to define the entire 2019 NBA playoffs.

His absence significantly swung Golden State’s odds of beating the Raptors, including a 3-point shift in the Vegas line for Game 5 at one point (which was enough to turn the Warriors from underdogs to favorites, before the closing line settled as a pick-em). The betting activity was justified. Durant’s return Monday night probably saved the Warriors’ season. (In addition to a late flurry of threes by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.) In the 12 minutes Durant played, Golden State was +6 and looked notably more like the Warriors we’ve become accustomed to seeing — averaging 154.5 (!) points per 100 possessions according to NBA Advanced Stats, knocking down 8 of 11 threes and even turning defense into offense in transition. Without Durant on the court, Toronto outscored the Warriors by 5, and the team was far less efficient.

And yet, the question will linger whether Durant was truly ready to play Monday night — and if not, whether rushing him back onto the court to help extend Golden State’s season in Game 5 was worth the long-term cost to Durant’s health. “He was cleared to play tonight,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said after the game. “That was a collaborative decision. I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department.”

Golden State overhauled its training staff last summer after losing head performance therapist Chelsea Lane to the Atlanta Hawks, and the team has had an injury-filled postseason. In addition to Durant’s long absence, the team lost Thompson for Game 3 of the finals (a Warriors loss) and has been managing center Kevon Looney’s ongoing collarbone fracture. It’s also worth noting that Durant’s original trouble had been with a strained right calf, not an Achilles injury, though it’s hard to believe the two injuries are completely unrelated, despite KD reportedly being told he “couldn’t get more hurt” by playing on the calf Monday.

And now the big-picture question is what Durant’s injury does to his impending free agency, which was supposed to headline what might be the most impressive class of available talent in any summer of the league’s history.

Durant has a $31.5 million player option for next season, which he was long expected to decline and test the open market. But Monday’s injury may change that decision-making process. Although he left money on the table in his previous Warriors deals, Durant could sign for as much as $221 million (over five years) if he opts out but returns to Golden State, or $164 million (over four years) if he signs elsewhere. Despite the long-term injury, plenty of star-desperate teams may still be willing to offer Durant maximum money even knowing his recovery could cost him at least the entire 2019-20 regular season.

But if he does leave Golden State, will an injured Durant be able to lure another star player or two from this talented class to sign alongside him? Particularly ones willing to play without Durant for an entire season before he can rejoin the presumptive superteam? Nobody could honestly claim to predict the enigmatic Durant anyway, but his injury adds yet another layer of uncertainty onto the free-agency summer — and the league’s future championship picture.

For now, the Warriors will have to find a way to win this series without Durant. But was Durant’s return worth it? Did they rush him back? Will he still sign somewhere else over the offseason? Regardless of who wins, those questions will now hang over the rest of the finals — and far, far beyond.

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Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.