Kevin Durant tore his Achilles on June 12 of 2019 and last night finally returned to NBA action. Durant had suffered a calf strain earlier in the playoffs and returned prematurely in order to help the Golden State Warriors try to come back in the NBA finals. Upon notice that Durant was returning the team was overjoyed. A dancing Durant led the team out onto the court to start game 5 of the series before catastrophe struck for the Warriors.
The Achilles is a tendon that connects the muscles used to extend your foot to the ankle bone. This is also the only connection of the extensor muscles to the ankle, meaning that when this tendon tears, the foot can no longer be extended. You may wonder how Durant’s Achilles could tear when he was pushing off his foot, and this was done by two reasons. Firstly, Durant pushes his body forward to create a driving force to the basket, and in the process extends the muscles in his calf, and the Achilles tendon. Secondly, he then initiates a strong muscle contraction in order to provide enough force to propel him past the defender so he can score. The combination of these two items creates an issue as he attempts to contract the muscle as he is extending it. This, and some part of chance, is what caused the Achilles to tear.
The torn or ruptured Achilles has been widely known to be the most devastating injury for an NBA player to suffer. When recovering from an Achilles tear, it can take up to a year or longer for an NBA player to return to the basketball court. Even then, most players do not return at 100%, and never get back being the same player that was seen before injury even after returning to games and practices. We are going to take a look at some other examples of players and how their numbers changed after their Achilles injury. Lastly, it should be mentioned that there is one player who is well known for being the only player to come back at 100% after an Achilles tear, Dominique Wilkins, and we are going to dive deeper into that as well.
NBA players and how they came back from and Achilles tear:
Demarcus Cousins (2018)
Demarcus Cousins tore his Achilles in January of 2018 as a 27-year-old member of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between his appearance where he was injured to when he returned to the court, Cousins was out for a total of 357 days. Now, we can look back and see the difference in his production. In 2018, prior to injury, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points per game, 12.9 rebounds per game and 5.4 assists per game through 48 contests. Since returning from that injury, in games playing for a loaded Warriors team, Cousins averaged 16.3 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game.
Kobe Bryant (2013)
Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in March of 2013 at the age of 34. This occurred late into the season when Kobe was overworking his body in an attempt to push the Lakers into the playoffs. Kobe tore his Achilles in April of 2013 and returned from the injury in December of the same year. This was a relatively short timeline spanning just over 240 days. Kobe, prior to his injury was averaging 27.3 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game and 6.0 assists per game. However, in his best season after the injury, these numbers dropped to 22.3 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game and 5.6 assists per game.
Patrick Ewing (1999)
Patrick Ewing tore his Achilles in June of 1999 at age 36. This occurred during a playoff game for the New York Knicks. Ewing returned around December of 1999, but there are no articles or sources that show this (based off of games played). This means Ewing likely had about 180-200 days between the tear and his return. Prior to tearing his Achilles, Ewing averaged 17.3 points per game, 9.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. After returning from injury Ewing averaged 15.0 points per game, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
Domonique Wilkins (1992)
Domonique Wilkins tore his Achilles in January of 1992 at the age of 32. Wilkins had an extremely short turnaround, as he was able to return to play in September of the same year. This means Wilkins missed around 240 days due to the injury. During the 1991-1992 NBA season before Wilkins tore his Achilles he was putting up averages of 28.1 points per game, 7.0 rebounds pr game and 3.8 assists per game. Upon returning from injury in the 1992-1993 season Wilkins averaged 29.9 points per game along with 6.8 rebounds per game and 3.2 assists per game
Overall, the one main issue with saying that the decrease in production is due to purely the Achilles tear is the age in which these injuries occur. It is known that in the NBA, especially in the older NBA eras, NBA players would often begin to slowly worsen once past thirty years old. Looking at these Achilles tear injuries almost all, except for Demarcus Cousins injury came after the age of 30. This means that while Achilles tears are known to be devastating, the poorer performance should not be solely based on this factor, but rather be compounded.
As well, it is evident that players can return to similar ability after an Achilles tear even though it might be rare. Dominique is the rare example of a close to 100% return, but both Patrick Ewing and Kobe Bryant returned to play at a similar level. Another interesting comparison could be looking at how all-time greats return from Achilles tears compared to role players.
What does this mean for Durant?
Kevin Durant is a rare case scenario here, as he suffered his Achilles tear at the age of 30. Similarly, Durant has also had 539 days between his injury to when he returned to the court last night. While it may be tough for Durant to compare to his aged-30 season where he put up per game averages of 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists, his return did look promising. Durant showed flashes of athleticism and gave hope for a possible Dominique-esque return. Regardless, as an NBA fan, seeing a player of Durant’s caliber return to the court is always a wonderful sight to see. If I had to make a guess based off of last night, Durant is going to return to a very similar athletic and skill ability as he was at when he was previously injured. It has been almost 30 years since Dominique did the impossible, it is only time that someone else does it too.