Kevin Durant: Will He Ever be the Same?


Kevin Durant is on a harsh road to recovery after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. In basketball, no injury can compare to a torn Achilles because recovery can often take over a year, and the tendon rarely returns to its pre-injury performance. The Achilles tendon is the largest tendon in the body, connecting the calf muscles to the heel bone. The American Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2013 on eighteen NBA players who had torn their achilles from 1988 to 2011. Of those eighteen players, seven never played in the NBA again, and the eleven who managed to return to the league suffered a significant drop in their PER (player efficiency rating).  If you’re a star player like Durant, who had just won back to back Finals MVPs at the time of his injury, it is even harder to return to former glory. 

An exception to the post-achilles injury performance drop off rule is Dominique Wilkins, who, after tearing his Achilles in the 1991-1992 season, returned in the next season as one of the top scorers in the league and played 71 regular season games. Astoundingly, Wilkins’s points per game in his return season actually increased by 1.8 from his last season. Wilkins tore his Achilles at the young age of 21, so some have speculated that the two-time Slam Dunk champion’s youth contributed to his ability to fully recover from injury.

Detailing his recovery and experience playing post-injury, Wilkins reported: “what the tear does is force you to play on the ground. You aren’t in the air as much. You become more fundamentally sound....before the injury, I didn’t really like shooting from outside. I liked attacking the rim, using my quickness to score or get into the paint...But you adjust.” Sure enough, in the season of his return Wilkins averaged 4.5 three point attempts per game, compared to 3.0 the season before. 

Luckily for Durant, physical therapy has advanced greatly since Wilkins’ days.  Furthermore, the four time scoring champion is so versatile that he can easily be a terrific scoring threat without needing to rely on driving to the basket. Durant is a stellar shooter, averaging over 38% from three point range over his entire career (he shot over 40% for three of four seasons), and over 88% from the free throw line. Durant is one of only eight players in NBA history to belong to the 40-50-90 club, which requires that a player average 40% from three, 50% for overall field goals, and 90% from the free throw line over a full season. Durant’s game never mainly focused on his athleticism, so adjusting to a style of play less taxing on his Achilles won’t be difficult.

Durant stands a good chance to return to the NBA as a formidable scorer.  Wilkins attests: “I have no doubt in my mind that he will do the necessary things to get him back to the level he left. Certain guys you don’t worry about when it comes to that – and he’s one of them.” Pundits can speculate all they want, but only time will tell if Wilkins is right.

Mark Pang