When Kevin Durant fell to the court with a right Achilles tendon injury on Monday (June 11), he sent shockwaves across the National Basketball Association (NBA), some teams having prepared for years to make him huge free-agent offers next month.
Now the Golden State Warriors superstar forward is looking at a year of intense rehabilitation and another season working his way back to peak form, changing the dynamic of where dozens of top players might play next season.
Durant, who missed the past month with a right calf injury, suffered a right Achilles tendon injury in Golden State’s 106-105 NBA Finals victory over Toronto on Monday, pulling the Warriors within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Suddenly, the landscape of decision-making has changed under NBA salary cap rules, the first domino expected to fall having been Durant’s choice.
Now maybe he does not opt out of his Warriors contract and takes US$31.5 million to rehabilitate in familiar surroundings with teammates who see him as a “brother”.
“We miss him. That’s our brother,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson, himself a free agent come July. “This is the best player in the world. With him, we are really one of the greatest teams to ever play.”
Or maybe he is unhappy about how he was used by the Warriors while hurt and is pushed to leave even more, having already been 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in winning his first two league crowns.
Then there is the market of NBA clubs. Do they risk a maximum offer to an injured Durant, who might never again be the same dominant player he has been?
The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers are among clubs that have made moves for years to clear cap room for this moment. But Durant’s impact on the court is delayed at least a year if not longer.
Durant, who turns 31 in September, jilted Oklahoma City and star playmaker Russell Westbrook to join the Warriors after the 2016 campaign.
His fate will still have an impact on the next teams for such stars as Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, who can opt out of his contract even if he leads the Raptors to the NBA crown, plus Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler.
Teams might also work harder for a deal with New Orleans for star big man Anthony Davis rather than take a risk on Durant.
Durant’s injury factor can impact other players also. If the Nets tried to land Durant and Irving, how would a year with Durant sidelined impact both men’s desire to make the move?
Thompson and Leonard are both from Los Angeles and the Clippers could try for both. The Lakers want another star to pair with LeBron James, whose pairings with two other stars brought NBA titles in Miami and Cleveland.
As Durant hobbled out of the arena on crutches, some of the best salary-cap plans of NBA clubs went with him.
The Warriors’ basketball operations director Bob Myers, his voice breaking, offered to take the blame for playing Durant and having the player incur a much worse injury than he had before. In the eyes of many, the player was rushed back in a must-win situation.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame,” Myers said. “If you have to, you can blame me. I run our basketball operations department.”
If Durant thinks Myers and Golden State players reach him on that personal level, it might entice him to stay and try and add a future crown with the Warriors.
“It’s more than basketball. But no one wants to understand that part,” Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala said. “It’s so much deeper than playing basketball for money. People still don’t really grasp what we’re talking about. When we say this is like a real brotherhood, people have no clue what goes into that and how we feel about each other.”
Durant has known the Warriors since they came to recruit him as a group in 2016 free agency.
“Life is more important in terms of caring about an individual and what they’re going through,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “When you get to know somebody and see how genuine they are, you root for those type of guys.”