By TIM REYNOLDS
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — This was already going to be a summer filled with fireworks in the NBA.
Nothing has changed.
Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury, the severity of which isn’t yet confirmed, means he probably won’t be able to play much — if any — next season. But this is a testament to how much he overshadows much of the NBA landscape: Durant will still likely dictate how the free-agency dominoes fall this summer.
Durant could exercise his $31.5 million player option and stay with the Warriors, and that’s likely going to be his worst-case financial scenario. He could opt out and sign a longer deal to stay in the Bay. Or he could opt out, sign elsewhere and start collecting massive checks from either the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Clippers or someone else.
Kyrie Irving’s decision could hinge on what Durant does. Kawhi Leonard’s decision could be affected by what Durant does. How the Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and all the other teams who have cap space will start spending their money on June 30 … it all will be determined, at least on some level, by what Durant does.
If he stays in Golden State, that’s more money for everyone else.
If he hits the open market, it’ll be about what team wants to gamble.
Here’s a tip to those teams that wanted Durant before he got hurt again in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
If the opportunity presents itself, sign him.
Free agency usually isn’t about just one year. It’s about the long haul. Durant is only 30 years old. He’s not a high-flyer who plays above the rim all the time. He’s not a plodding big man. He’s not someone with a lot of gray in the goatee. He’s a world-class scorer and jump-shooter in his prime. A year from now, if the recovery from the Achilles injury indeed takes that long, he’ll be far from over the hill.
“This is a devastating injury for a basketball player, but Durant can return to be the same or very close,” Dr. David Chao, a longtime NFL team physician, practicing orthopedic surgeon and now a sports medical analyst with a large following wrote Tuesday. “This does not mark his downfall as an elite player.”
In the short term, it just means Durant’s NBA Finals are over. Game 6 is Thursday night, and the Warriors trail the Toronto Raptors 3-2 in the title series.
In the long term, it might mean so much more — including the possibility that his time playing for Golden State is over.
Achilles recoveries for basketball players have typically taken about a full year. Even if it turns out to be a partial tear, it’s still a tear. Some team was going to pay Durant a lot of money in 2019-20 and some team still will, probably without the immediate on-court services of perhaps the best player in the world in return.
The first decision is the medical course of action.
The financial course of action will be decided soon after.
All will not be lost next season for the team that has Durant on its roster. That team will apply for, and get, a disabled player exception that will allow them to sign someone else for probably about $9 million and not have that count toward the team’s cap.
That player won’t be of Durant’s caliber, because so few players are. But a year or so later, the team would have Durant.
There’s risk with any signing. And signing any player that will command so much of a team’s salary cap while facing a grueling rehab would seem particularly risky.
“He’s going to come back stronger though,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “That’s the kind of fighter he is.”
The Nets swung a trade earlier this month to clear enough cap space for two max contracts this summer — and there’s no doubt that they would love Durant to take one of those spots, possibly alongside Irving. The Knicks have been mentioned as a hopeful in the Durant sweepstakes for months. The Clippers were expected to make a pitch for him as well. The Warriors surely want to keep him.
The chatter about Durant’s injury indicates it’s all a mystery now, although it really shouldn’t be.
Players have made comebacks off Achilles surgery, with relative levels of success.
DeMarcus Cousins, Kobe Bryant, and Rudy Gay all came back; Cousins hasn’t regained past form yet. Dominique Wilkins had an Achilles tear happen to him at the peak of his career and he arguably was good as ever afterward. Elton Brand, now leading the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office, had it as a player and said he was never the same. Christian Laettner went from a star to a role player when his Achilles ripped.
“I’ve been there,” 15-time golf major winner Tiger Woods said Tuesday at the U.S. Open. “I’ve had it to my own Achilles. I’ve had it to my own back. I know what it feels like. It’s an awful feeling. And no one can help you. That’s the hard part.”
Woods fought his way back toward the top of his sport, and is the reigning Masters champion.
Durant isn’t going to let an Achilles injury end his reign as one of the game’s best. Teams would be foolish to think otherwise.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org