The Golden State Warriors’ season and Kevin Durant’s burgeoning Hall of Fame career were dealt a significant scare on Tuesday night when Durant went down in a heap following a collision with teammate Zaza Pachulia in a loss to the Washington Wizards. Based on Durant’s fall alone, many close to him feared the worst, but a middling scenario in this case is a happy one.
Durant did not tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He’ll be out for a significant stretch of the spring, but he won’t miss the playoffs, and his career isn’t in jeopardy. Following the late Tuesday MRI, the Warriors released the results on Wednesday morning:
Injury Update: Kevin Durant suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain and a tibial bone bruise.
Full details below. pic.twitter.com/t3JkVnMmqa
— Warriors PR (@WarriorsPR) March 1, 2017
In some quarters, this could be viewed as terrible news. Not only will Durant miss at least his team’s home stretch, with the playoffs set to begin on April 15, but he’ll be fighting his basketball shape and, most importantly, worry as he attempts to return on the fly from an injury that should saddle him with both pain and concern until the offseason, whenever that hits. Ask Stephen Curry, a player whose 2016 title defense was completely altered by an MCL sprain that he spent the entirety of the postseason begging off, even though it was clear well into the NBA Finals that the sprain was affecting him.
In comparison to an ACL tear, though? As it appeared on Tuesday? A setback that would not only leave Durant out for all of 2016-17 and the playoffs, but a significant chunk of 2017-18?
The Warriors, and Durant, will take it. KD could have seen his career put on hold while working at his absolute peak, as the 28-year old is averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and a combined 2.7 blocks/steals in under 34 minutes a contest for the 50-10 Warriors, who are tops in the West.
Durant put up superior numbers, in a way, during his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his current scoring numbers are his lowest since his second season in the league all the way back in 2008-09 (OKC’s first in the NBA). The Texas product, who missed significant time during the 2014-15 season with a Jones fracture in his right foot, has only suffered through the injury bug during that frustrating season — a campaign that saw him undergo three surgeries while missing 55 games.
Durant is also no stranger to injuring himself in his hometown of Washington. As our Eric Freeman pointed out on Tuesday, Durant pulled a hamstring in November of 2015 during what was supposed to be a showcase game for the Wizards, as they pined for the attention of the hometown free agent savior machine to-be.
Durant, this week, pointed out that he wanted no such part of a homecoming. Not so much because the Wizards are bunko (after a distressing start to this season, they’ve risen to contender status in the Eastern Conference), but because of the inherent pressure that comes from playing in your hometown, even alongside a celebrated and established Washington star such as John Wall.
For now, the injury takes just about every concern off of the backburner. Such is life when you spend the first 60 games of the season winning five out of every six contests, as the Warriors have had so far in 2016-17.
The team is ranked tops in offense and No. 2 in defense in Durant’s first season with the club after signing a two-year deal worth over $54 million in the offseason. (He is expected to opt out of the final year of that contract this summer, signing a more lucrative contract that will see him spend his early 30s in the Bay Area.) The spindly forward is a big part of the team’s second-ranked defensive attack, often acting as the last line of defense on that end due to the size, movement, and role limitations placed on frontcourt teammates Pachulia and All-Defensive maestro Draymond Green.
The versatile forward has sat out but one game this season, a Feb. 25 win over the NBA-worst Brooklyn Nets. Passing on active duty due to a bruised left hand, Durant watched as reserve swingman Patrick McCaw contributed nine points, four rebounds in two blocks in just under 25 minutes of play during Golden State’s 112-95 win, with veteran supersub Andre Iguodala playing his usual allotment of 33-year-old minutes (25 on the night, adding nine assists) and shooting guard Ian Clark seeing his minutes window open up to the tune of 18 ticks and nine points off of the defending Western champs’ bench.
The addition of the well-traveled waiver wire veteran Matt Barnes, now set to join his 10th NBA team (not counting encore turns in Golden State, Sacramento and with the Los Angeles Clippers) was set to alleviate some fears in the team’s frontcourt. In a way, the two-way swingman — who averaged 7.6 points in 25 minutes per game with the Sacramento Kings this season, making 13 starts — seems right out of central casting.
Barnes is one of the few NBA players who would seem to make Golden State’s stomach turn with some of his off-court choices, though, and with Iguodala, a host of shooting guards and preponderance of available replacements for Durant’s turn at power forward (with Green and veteran David West ready to tussle), the Warriors won’t seem to need to rely much on Barnes’ on (he shot 32 percent from deep and 38 percent overall with the Kings) and off-court, um, touch.
The bigger concern, one that will be followed a great deal, will be Kevin Durant’s play upon his return.
The forward has never suffered a significant knee injury to this scale, and though he was lucky to avoid a ligament and/or cartilage tear, the 7-foot MVP candidate will still have to just about fully re-learn the game on the fly once he leaves the pine and reports for active duty later in the spring. Dennis Rodman suffered a similar tear just before the 1997 playoffs, and the veteran (and by that time three-time NBA champion) was skittish while working following the first knee injury of his career, derailing most of his playoff efforts, denying him the chance to contribute in the manner to which he was accustomed.
Durant no doubt recalls how Curry’s 2016 playoff averages of more than 25 points and five assists per game seemed rather punchless in comparison to his pre-injury MVP work during the 2015-16 regular season, and during the championship-earning 2015 postseason from the previous campaign. Curry was fine, playing at an All-Star level upon his return from that setback, but he couldn’t provide the sort of court-tilting presence he offered before his MCL sprain. Curry’s knee injury wasn’t the reason Golden State lost the 2016, but it was the biggest part of the package by far.
Durant, with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, will have it rougher than Curry (who “only” dealt with a Grade 1 sprain). Better yet will be the knowledge that Durant, unlike Curry, will not have to walk (or run; this is the Warriors after all, once again leading the NBA in pace) the ball up court and initiate his team’s offense. KD will simply get to act as a scorer and, hopefully, an off-ball threat.
That will only matter if Durant returns to the style that made him such a profound influence during the meat of the NBA’s 2016-17 season. The Warriors should remain the league’s top offense in his absence, but he has to return looking for shots, looking to tilt the floor on his own. He can’t look to fit in, as he did at times during his relatively uneasy first days in Golden State.
He’ll have to work through the growing pains of joining a new team, after a month’s absence (at least), all over again. While working through his own personal fears and the mitigating influence of what will be an aching left knee.
At worst, though, the injury will derail Golden State’s championship push slightly, as the club is four games up on the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the West with 24 Spurs contests to play. If Durant is able to effortlessly glide back into the party, then the worry from the last day of February will seem like it was documented on sea scrolls by the time the NBA Finals come around in mid-June.
We’ll get to see Kevin Durant play basketball again this season. That’s enough, for now, to allow us to pass on considering the complications that could arise from his return.
As if any complications from “Kevin Durant, returning to your basketball team” should ever be taken seriously.
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