Last night the Toronto Raptors lost Game 5 of the NBA Finals 106-105, missing the chance to win their first championship. Golden State lost, too. While the Warriors managed to win while facing elimination for the sixth time in seven games over their dynastic run, if ever such a win could be Pyrrhic this was it: Kevin Durant, after missing a month with what was called a calf strain, lasted just 12 minutes before injuring his Achilles, his season over and his long-term outlook in question. Durant was the night’s obvious loser. But on this night he was hardly alone.
Typically players with Achilles injuries need six to twelve months to recover. A study of 18 players from 1988-2011 who suffered serious Achilles injuries found 40 percent never returned to action; those who did suffered significant injury and performance setbacks. Although there have surely been significant treatment advances since the era this study covered, it’s discouraging, to say the least.
Durant was set to enter free agency this summer as the premier attraction in a star-studded class, with at least a half-dozen teams happy to give him a max deal and, for the first time in his career, trust him as the undisputed leader of his team. The next time he suits up he’ll be 31 or 32 and coming off the most devastating injury in his profession.
Golden State has set any number of records during their half-decade of dominance, none of which touch on humility. Profiled in The New York Times Magazine, owner Joe Lacob let loose with all the audacity of a Steph Curry 40-footer explaining why, like the British Empire, the sun would never set on his:
“We’ve crushed them on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team…We’re light years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things…It’s not just Steph Curry. It’s architecting a team, a style of play, the way they all play together. It’s all extremely thought through.”
Spoiler: the British Empire didn’t last, arrogance and overreach being two of the main reasons; a few months after the Lacob profile was published, the Warriors lost in the Finals. In pro sports, injured players are generally examined by doctors who are employed by the team. It’s impossible to know what’s in the heart of any single medical practitioner, but it’s not a leap to say that people are people, and that as a group of people the bosses who sign that doctor’s paycheck may have different agendas than the people being examined, and that all the Hippocratic oaths in the world are not a fart in the wind compared to the pressure most people face trying to please their boss.
Durant was heavily rumored to be leaving Golden State after the Finals. As the series has unfolded in his absence, the Warriors have had no answer for Kawhi Leonard. Even the most light-years-ahead organization, with their backs against the wall, could be tempted to wield their two-time Finals MVP as a blunt object, injured or no. There was suspicion this week Golden State was leaking their disappointment that he hadn’t returned from injury the way Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson did, though it’s impossible to know if there’s any truth to that.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Here’s truth: Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the 2012 playoffs; not wanting to come back too soon, fans turned on him; Rose returned, re-injured himself and was never the same. Also true: Isaiah Thomas was looking at a nine-figure contract before hurting his hip in 2017, then risked his health by coming back too soon to help the team. Boston thanked him by trading him that summer. If you follow baseball, you’ll recall what happened in the fall of 2015 with the New York Mets and Matt Harvey. If you don’t remember that name, that’s the point. Players don’t benefit by putting the team ahead of their career health. Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs disagreed on the severity of a leg injury Leonard struggled with last year. Leonard trusted his body, his uncle and himself more than the Spurs and their doctors, and he’s a win away from his second championship and second Finals MVP.
Part and parcel of the pressure for Durant to return ASAP is a long-held notion that reflects a loss of sanity: that Golden State never “needed” him in the first place. This crock of kook goes something like this: the Warriors were already bossing the league when he was in Oklahoma City; by joining them after they eliminated the Thunder from the playoffs, he proved he wasn’t man enough to accept the challenge of de-throning them; any success he experienced after was coattail-riding at its worst; history would never recognize his greatness in light of his sorry surrender. But nope. Not true.
The two years before Durant signed, Golden State won one title and lost one. They were 7-6 over two Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers; the series the Warriors won came with Kevin Love injured and Kyrie Irving absent after Game 1. A year later Golden State was down 3-1 to Durant and the Thunder before fighting back to get to the Finals, where a healthy Cavs team bested them.
In the two years after Durant signed on, the Warriors won both championships, going 8-1 over two Finals against LeBron and Cleveland. Before Durant came along, the Cavs had figured out how to control the tempo and even the odds. Durant’s arrival brought a seismic shift to a stand-off. The Warriors were not a dynasty before him. Without him, they may never have become one.
When Durant went down injured, a not-insignificant portion of the Toronto fans in attendance cheered. These people want their team to win by any means necessary. They don’t measure being the best by beating the best; as long as they can point to a banner or a trophy, they’re content. Contrast that attitude to what Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after the game: “In this league, we’re all brothers. At the end of the day, we’re all brothers…You never wanna see a competitor like him go down.” Game recognizes game.
Jerry West is an NBA legend. Literally “The Logo.” He played in nine Finals and lost eight of them. Wilt Chamberlain put up numbers that will never be seen again. His teams lost two-thirds of their Finals. LeBron could be the greatest player ever. He’s also lost two-thirds of his Finals. West and Wilt frequently ran up against the 1960s Celtics, possibly the greatest dynasty in the history of American team sports. LeBron faced off four times with the greatest dynasty of this century. History doesn’t remember West or Chamberlain as losers. It won’t view James as one, either. They’re among the best ever because even when they didn’t come out on top, they always came back, time after time, pushing themselves and the best to greater heights.
Beating the Warriors with Durant out for 228 of 240 minutes still counts. If the Raptors won last night, they’d still be champs. Deservedly so. Their fans wouldn’t see an asterisk, and neither would anyone who’s watched these Finals. But Durant’s absence, before the Achilles and after, has robbed us all. It’s robbed us of a KD vs. Kawhi match-up, the two best players throughout the playoffs. The tension between the Warriors’ interests as a profit-making machine versus Durant’s as an employee robbed us of the pure spectacle of athletic performance free of financial and political concerns. Years of hot takes trying to pin down KD’s legacy robbed some of us of the joy of what he was doing in the moment, and here we stand now with the rest of his career completely up in the air.
Meanwhile, Kevon Looney, who can’t even lift his right arm, says he’s ready to go in Game 6. Looney, 23, is an unrestricted free agent. Whatever he decides, I hope he thinks about what’s best for him. I hope he thinks about Durant, and the career of a man who’s given the basketball world so much without it ever seeming like enough. I hope he realizes some things, once lost, can never be recovered. I hope he seriously considers whether he ought to play again this year. I’m not sure he’s healthy enough to, at this point. Even if he can, I’m not sure we deserve it.