Reverberations of Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury will ripple well beyond those that shook the NBA superstar’s calf in Game 5 of the Finals on Monday. The landscape of the league may be impacted for years to come, starting with the outcome of this series and soon followed by an increasingly complicated free-agency period.
Thoughts are first with Durant, an all-time great whose career may forever be altered by the decision to play at less than full strength in a do-or-die game. At the very least, the 30-year-old who spent the last few years playing at a discount rate for the right to chase titles now faces a lengthy recovery on the precipice of a July that he had already conceded was finally the time to cash in on a massive deal.
After the NBA collectively pauses to consider the possibility that (arguably) the best player alive could be removed from the picture for an entire season and may never regain full strength, given the history of Achilles injuries, everyone from the Bay Area to Brooklyn will be forced to recalibrate expectations for this summer and beyond.
Again, that starts with Durant, who now faces what could be a difficult choice between picking up his $31.5 million player option for next season and rehabbing with the Golden State Warriors or canvassing his preferred free-agency destinations for a max contract, regardless of his injury status. On the one hand, he could delay his free agency until 2020, when he will have a firmer grasp of any plan to build around him when healthy, and on the other, he could lock in his financial security.
“Teams now have a reason to hesitate,” one rival agent told Yahoo Sports. “He had no business out there. If he was my client, I would be getting killed this morning.”
Any team willing to offer Durant a max contract now would likely offer it again next summer, when he could presumably hit the ground running, assuming the cap space is still there, and it may be more prudent for him to rehab with the devil he knows rather than face the increased scrutiny that comes with joining a new team.
Maybe this experience will draw him closer to the Warriors, who may well offer him a max extension in the aftermath of seeing him sacrifice his career for another ring, or maybe he just wants to live somewhere else for the next year. These are the many tough choices that were only made tougher by Monday night’s devastation.
Multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports that they expect the Warriors to still offer a max extension, regardless of the injury. The only argument against doing so is the commitment to a player who may never be the same. Then again, the alternative is alienating Durant further by offering anything less than the full max and potentially losing him with no sufficient alternative in free agency for 2020 and beyond.
Beyond what Durant decides, potential suitors and playing partners now must also make some difficult decisions about their futures, the reverberations of which could affect the entire league and multiple NBA titles. Let’s run through some of them.
What does Durant’s injury mean for his suitors?
It is a widely held belief in NBA circles that the Knicks are the biggest threat to poach Durant from the Warriors. He and his agent have ties to the New York area, and the Knicks traded All-Star center Kristaps Porzingis in a cap-clearing move this past January, presumably to pursue a second max free agent alongside Durant.
Likewise, multiple league sources also told Yahoo Sports they believe the Knicks will still offer an injured Durant a max deal when free agency opens June 30.
“What you don't know is what promises have been made,” one source told Yahoo Sports. “Have the Knicks and Clippers already made such promises? If not, are they willing to get two and a half to three years out of a guy on a four-year contract? Achilles tears take a year out of you and put your other Achilles at a much greater risk.”
The Knicks and Clippers, who were widely rumored to be among the few teams that could lure Durant, pitting him opposite LeBron James in the Los Angeles market, do have a straightforward Plan B. Kawhi Leonard is also a free agent with ties to L.A. (his hometown) and New York (his uncle Dennis Robertson’s backyard).
Except, now there is only one forward on the market capable of completely altering a franchise’s fortunes in 2019-20. If the Clippers whiff on Leonard, they can take solace in the fact that a free agent of Jimmy Butler’s caliber could help improve what was already a playoff team this season enough to remain highly competitive.
The Knicks, on the other hand, may just be desperate enough to offer Durant the full max without any protections against injury, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks reported.
What does KD’s injury mean for fellow free agents?
The Brooklyn Nets present an equally fascinating scenario. They traded a pair of first-round picks last week in an effort to dump enough salary to create enough cap space for two max contracts. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Brooklyn’s top priority was the same as New York’s: pair Durant with good friend Kyrie Irving.
“I do not believe for a minute that a team clears cap space without having something else in hand,” a league source told Yahoo Sports of recent moves.
If not Irving, the prevailing theory was that fellow free agent and New York native Kemba Walker could be a potent alternative as a costar for Durant on either the Knicks or Nets. Would Irving or Walker be willing to make that move now, all but sitting out a year of contention while waiting on Durant to regain his health?
The relationship between Irving and the Boston Celtics may be frayed enough that he would leave regardless of who joins him, but Walker made clear to The Athletic’s Jared Weiss last month that “Charlotte’s definitely my first priority.” The temptation of contending alongside Durant for his hometown Knicks may be gone now.
What does this mean for an Anthony Davis trade?
As you can see, the list of options available to the Knicks winnowed along with Durant’s chances of contributing next season. That could reverberate into the trade market, where, as SNY’s Ian Begley pointed out, it may not be worth pursuing Anthony Davis if the Knicks strike out on Durant, Leonard, Irving and Walker in free agency.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Davis has limited his list of preferred trade destinations to the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. However, Wojnarowski reported that New York’s offer, which would center on the No. 3 overall pick in this month’s draft, would not satisfy the New Orleans Pelicans’ desire for All-Star talent. Are the Knicks willing to gut their roster with only the promise of Davis in return?
And is Davis as interested in the Knicks if Durant is not there to join him? This could all turn his focus — and New Orleans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin’s — to the Lakers, which means in a roundabout and twisted way LeBron James may have just benefited from a catastrophic injury to a peer he respects.
This is how widespread the ripple effects of Durant’s injury will reach, and we have not even begun to tackle all the questions that arose on Monday. Will teams be even more emboldened to pursue a trade for Davis or a free-agency deal for a secondary star knowing now that the Warriors will be without Durant for some time? And will players feel more compelled to secure their most lucrative and long-term offers after seeing how quickly a superstar’s career can change in an instant?
The only certainty seems to be that the league cannot afford to wait on Durant, and that is a bitter end to a three-year stretch in which the NBA was defined by him.
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