This story was originally published on Jan. 27, 2018 in light of DeMarcus Cousins’ torn Achilles. It was updated on July 2, when Cousins signed with the Warriors. It has now been updated again after Kevin Durant’s injury in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
With just over two minutes left to go in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Kevin Durant’s career took a turn. In his first game in a month since injuring his calf, the Warriors’ star planted awkwardly and crumpled to the floor. The team fears an MRI will confirm the worst: Durant likely tore his Achilles tendon.
When will Durant play again? Good question. It might not be for a while, judging from past history.
Consider what happened with Durant’s teammate, DeMarcus Cousins. In late January of 2018, Cousins, then with the New Orleans Pelicans, landed awkwardly chasing a loose ball. The next day, he was diagnosed with an Achilles tear.
Cousins did not return to the court for a full calendar year, and has hardly looked like his old self since.
That’s because the Achilles tendon tear is devastating. Though there has never been a good injury, the Achilles tendon tear is particularly heinous. In fact, among frequently suffered major basketball injuries, there’s nothing worse than a torn Achilles.
We know more about ACL tears, and there are occasionally injuries that are more gruesome, like Gordon Hayward’s broken ankle during the 2017 season opener. We’ve also seen players recover quicker from Achilles injuries in recent years than the past. However, we’ve also seen many players never fully recover and, in some instances, never play another game.
According to a 2013 medical study that identified 18 players who suffered major Achilles injuries over a 23-year span (1988-2011), seven players never returned to the league. Players who returned missed an average of 56 games and saw their PER decline in their first and second seasons back. A 2015 CBS Sports article found that among 14 players who returned from Achilles injuries since 1992, they averaged fewer minutes while both their field goal and three-point percentages dropped, on average. There are very few complete success stories.
That’s the uphill battle Durant is facing.
What happens during an Achilles tendon tear?
The Achilles tendon is the thickest and strongest in the entire body, connecting the calf muscles to the heel bones. Back in 2015, Mavs Moneyball spoke to Dr. Kevin Stone, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine. Here’s how he described the tendon:
The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscle to the heel bone. It’s designed to stretch, it’s designed to absorb force when the athlete lands from a jump. It’s designed to provide power for push off when taking a running step. And so, Achilles tendon ruptures are classically the scourge of a 40- to 60-year-old male. It’s uncommon in sports injuries for it to be women or it to be younger athletes. So the unusual Achilles rupture in the basketball player or a female is usually bad luck -- landing from a bad position, landing awkwardly hard on the leg.
One common description of an Achilles tendon is as a rubber band. A grade 1 or 2 strain means that the Achilles has swelling or might be partially torn, but in our rubber band analogy, the muscle is still connected on both sides and still works, albeit less effectively. A grade 3 tear means that Achilles muscle, or the rubber band, has snapped and is now flopping around uselessly with no ability to reconnect itself. The MRI will determine where Durant’s injury falls in that spectrum.
Recovery times range from six months to an entire year. If you’re interested in more information about the surgery, definitely read the full Stone interview.
Notable players who have suffered Achilles injuries
There are several examples of articles that have compared player statistics before and after an Achilles — see these good stories on Deadspin and CBS Sports. That said, there’s always an issue with comparing those numbers. The injury may be the biggest factor, but there’s also minute limitations, natural aging, and smaller roles to consider.
It might be best to go through the most notable players who have suffered torn Achilles tendons, and how they recovered. For this exercise, it makes more sense to focus on established NBA players, rather than bench players, though we make a few exceptions.
Other NBA players who have suffered Achilles injuries since 2000 that aren’t spotlighted here include: Darrell Arthur, Jonas Jerebko, Dan Dickau, Jeff Taylor, and Christian Laettner.
Here are the most notable players who suffered torn Achilles tendons in the past two decades, and how they recovered from it.
When the injury happened: A January, 2018 game at age 27.
Before the injury: Cousins was on his way to a fifth straight All-Star appearance. In his first full season alongside Anthony Davis, Cousins was averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds per game, helping New Orleans stay in the playoff hunt.
After the injury: Cousins reportedly turned down a two-year, $40 million offer from the Pelicans, but when no others offers presented themselves, he signed a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors. He returned to the court in mid-January and averaged 16 points and eight rebounds in just under 26 minutes a game. He injured his quad in the first round of the playoffs before returning for a brief cameo in the NBA Finals.
When the injury happened: A January, 2017 game at age 30.
Before the injury: Gay was averaged 34 minutes while scoring 19 points on career-high efficiency figures with the Kings.
After the injury: In 2017-18, Gay’s efficiency remained about the same as his previous season, but his minutes were greatly reduced in San Antonio. The next season, Gay experienced a renaissance, averaging 14 points and seven rebounds per game on career-high scoring efficiency. He’s not the same player he once was, but his relatively quick recovery process, along with players like Wesley Matthews, would seem to show that Achilles rehab has quickened slightly from the 2000s.
When the injury happened: A March, 2015 game at age 28.
Before the injury: Matthews averaged more than 15 points on a 57.5 True Shooting Percentage in Portland.
After the injury: Matthews incredibly started in the Mavericks’ season opener in 2015, but he has never been the same player. His 2017-18 campaign is the best since the injury, but Matthews never recovered his full mobility and his two-point shooting remained well below his career numbers.
When the injury happened: A January, 2015 game at age 26.
Before the injury: Jennings had played for Detroit and Milwaukee as a backup point guard and may have been headed out of the league anyway.
After the injury: Jennings had two stints with teams equalling 81 games. Neither was particularly effective.
When the injury happened: A March, 2013 game at age 34.
Before the injury: Bryant was past his prime, but he was still a dominant force, averaging 27.3 points on 46 percent shooting that season.
After the injury: Bryant played six, 35, and 66 games in the next three seasons before retiring. He averaged 19 points on just 37 percent shooting from the field.
When the injury happened: A December, 2014 game at age 32
Before the injury: After dealing with major injuries for three straight seasons, Varejao’s 2013-14 effort was his healthiest yet, playing 65 games. He made it through 26 games in 2014 before the torn Achilles.
After the injury: Varejao played 67 games and just 588 minutes in the next two seasons, combined. The injury effectively ended his career.
When the injury happened: A February, 2012 game at age 35.
Before the injury: Billups was still averaging 15 points that season before his Achilles injury, though he was only shooting 36 percent from the field.
After the injury: Billups played just 41 more games over the next two seasons before retiring.
When the injury happened: An April, 2010 playoff game at age 30.
Before the injury: Okur averaged 13.5 points and 7.1 rebounds during the 2009-10 regular season, starting all 73 games for Utah.
After the injury: Okur played just 30 more games across two seasons for the Jazz and Nets. Neither was particularly effective.
When the injury happened: An August, 2007 offseason workout at age 28.
Before the injury: Through his first nine seasons, Brand averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds as an athletic force known for his leaping abilities. It wasn’t ridiculous to think that Brand could have been a Hall of Fame candidate if he had been allowed to continue his prime uninterrupted.
After the injury: Brand averaged 15 points and eight rebounds during the 2010-11 season, but never eclipsed those numbers in any other one. In an interview with InsideSocal.com, Brand said this:
I didn’t have the same explosiveness that I had. I regained and then I relost it. I didn’t have it. I had to change my game a little bit where I jumped off two feet and I was a little bit slower.
When the injury happened: A December, 2004 game at age 30.
Before the injury: Lenard was one of the league’s best shooters, and finished his career just shy of 1,000 made threes. In the 2003-04 season, he averaged 14 points while playing 73 games for the Denver Nuggets.
After the injury: Lenard only played 29 more games across two seasons following his torn Achilles tendon.
When the injury happened: A September, 2001 offseason workout at age 24.
Before the injury: Taylor was a promising young player for the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, averaging 14 points and five rebounds in his first four seasons.
After the injury: Taylor never even reached his rookie season numbers again, averaging just eight points, although he did play 286 more games.
When the injury happened: An April, 1997 game at age 26.
Before the injury: Ellis was a high-flier in the 90s in the midst of a career year, averaging 22 points and seven rebounds before the torn Achilles.
After the injury: Ellis played six more seasons, but he never even hit 15 points per game again and averaged just 9.3 during 357 more games.
When the injury happened: A January, 1992 game at age 32.
Before the injury: Wilkins is a strange case, and perhaps not perfectly comparable, given his injury happened nearly 25 years ago with few similar examples since. But he was one of the league’s most dominant scorers in his prime.
After the injury: No player has ever recovered to the same level that Wilkins did after a torn Achilles. Across Wilkins’ next two seasons, he averaged 28 points and nearly seven rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting. His numbers declined the next year, but Wilkins also turned 35 — it was going to happen eventually.
What’s the usual outcome for Achilles injuries
Every injury, body type, and player is different, of course. An Achilles injury for one player doesn’t affect everyone the same way. That said, it’s a terrible injury that typically bodes poorly for the player involved. Generally, this is what happens.
- Achilles injuries affect players over 30 the worst, often shortening their careers to just another season or two. Durant will turn 31 just before the start of next season.
- Achilles injuries aren’t career shortening for players under 30, at least not immediately
- However, players who suffer Achilles injuries rarely reach their pre-injury peak, and certainly not for an extended amount of time.
- Recent trends point to Achilles rehabilitation taking closer to six to eight months, rather than nine to 12 months. That’d put Durant back sometime in the middle of next season if there is a complete rupture. But chances are, he’ll play this conservatively.
We’re hoping Kevin Durant beats the odds and returns to form, and that any player suffering from an Achilles injury does the same. It’s an uphill climb, though. Achilles injuries are just horrible.