Where do you even start? How do you even begin to process such a brutal injury to such an important player at such a critical time? Probably with the attendant emotions. The Warriors, understandably, were hit pretty hard by a range of feelings Monday evening. They beat Toronto in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to stay alive and send the proceedings back to Oakland, but they also lost Kevin Durant when he went down with an Achilles injury. That is a lot to deal with all at once.
Steve Kerr said as much after the game at Scotiabank Arena. When he was asked to describe his “range of emotions,” he said he wasn’t sure he could. On the one hand, he was proud of his guys for pulling out a one-point win in an elimination game under clearly difficult circumstances; on the other he was “devastated for Kevin.” He wasn’t alone there. Steph Curry choked up when he learned that it was an Achilles injury for Durant and not another to his calf (which had kept Durant out of the postseason for about a month prior to his return on Monday). And Andre Iguodala—who helped walk KD back to the locker room—said expressing himself was difficult because what happened went “so much deeper than playing basketball for money and all that goes into the machine.” He said it was about “being a human being.”
“An incredible win,” Kerr said, “and a horrible loss at the same time.”
Prior to Game 5, there was speculation about why Durant had not played that drew criticism from various people. Then he played and got hurt again. After the nature of the latest injury was revealed, Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers addressed the media. That is not something executives generally do during the NBA Finals, but Myers understood the extenuating circumstances. He noted that the injuries were different and said it was “a collaborative decision” to clear Durant to play after the long layoff. He also said he didn’t believe there was anybody to blame but offered himself up as a willing scapegoat if people felt the inclination to label one. Myers said the people who doubted Durant’s resolve to return “were wrong,” called KD “one of the most misunderstood people,” and added “he’s a good teammate and I’m lucky to know him.”
DeMarcus Cousins went his own way on the subject. When he was asked about those who “questioned KD’s heart,” Boogie replied: “fuck them.” He offered up that particular sentiment twice in quick succession.
Good for him. It seems appropriate, although his indignation probably won’t stop what could be a very long, very public discourse about whether the Warriors made a mistake by playing him in Game 5. As Myers said, and I’m paraphrasing, that’s how these things tend to go. That is just one of the many ripple effects here. There are lots more. Not to be too hyperbolic, but given Durant’s superstar status, the nature of what he suffered, and the timing, KD’s injury has to be one of the most significant in NBA history.
From an immediate on-court basketball perspective, the Warriors must once again scramble to figure out how to beat the Raptors. They defeated Toronto on the road in Game 5, but they barely pulled that off after Kawhi Leonard scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter and 12 of the team’s final 16. Toronto got a fairly clean Kyle Lowry look at a potential game-winner too. Draymond Green got a piece of Lowry’s shot, and the Warriors won by just one point. That is an extremely thin margin. The two teams have played 20 quarters of basketball this series. The Raptors have won 14 of those and tied two others.
The Warriors quite clearly needed Durant all along, and they looked so much better with him on the floor. Anecdotally, the ball seemed to move better offensively. And the Warriors, who struggled to score at times in the Finals in his absence, were happy to have him back to make much-needed buckets early on. Durant scored 11 points in 12 minutes and made all three of his 3s. He also forced Nick Nurse and the Raptors into a difficult decision about who would guard him. Nurse chose to start the game with Kawhi Leonard on KD. That was a tough call. The Raptors have needed Kawhi to carry them at the offensive end all postseason. Tasking him with also defending Durant was a big ask. Without Durant available moving forward, that frees up a lot of options for the Raptors on defensive assignments and how they want to deploy Kawhi, and it complicates matters once more for the Warriors for all the same reasons we saw over the first four games: How much offense can they squeeze out of Curry and Klay Thompson. Who’s going to guard Leonard? How deep does Kerr need to go with his rotations now? How many minutes can they steal with guys like Boogie (who has hurt them at times in the series) and Kevon Looney (who is just plain hurt)?
The Warriors have quite a few basketball strategy decisions to think about. Only one team has ever been up 3-1 in the NBA Finals and lost: the 2016 Warriors. To become the new Cleveland Cavaliers in that regard (an amusing thought during an otherwise unamusing time), the Warriors will have to play really good basketball in two consecutive games while simultaneously dealing with the “human being” element that Iguodala mentioned. That’s real, and I can’t imagine it being easy on anyone. They are also headed for what will be the organization’s final home game at Oracle Arena. Game 6 was already going to be a charged atmosphere. And what happens if Durant materializes at some point? Just seeing him in the building could blow the roof off.
The Warriors went from the favorites in the series, to the underdogs when they fell behind, to having a chance with KD, to who knows what they are now. It’s impossible to tell what version of the Warriors we’ll get after all this—or, beyond that, where any of them will go from here when it’s all over.
It seems almost perverse to think about Durant’s pending free agency so soon after such an unexpected and unfortunate development—and yet all the dominoes everyone assumed would fall this summer might have been reset and rearranged Monday night. For about a year now, the expectation was that this would be KD’s last season with the Warriors—to the point where even the Warriors teased him about it during last year’s parade. When Steph’s brother, Seth, suggested (wrongly) that the Warriors might be harder to guard without KD, people wondered how Durant would respond to being seen by some as inessential. That was madness, of course. Durant’s value to the Warriors has been apparent with and without him during these Finals. But the widely held belief around the league was that Durant would heal up and hit the road. Now we’re left to wonder whether that remains true or whether his desired destination will change as a result of the injury.
Most of the rumors and whispers pointed to Durant’s landing in New York with the Knicks, possibly with Kyrie Irving at his side. That speculation is part of why the Knicks became such a hot topic of conversation this postseason despite not being in the playoffs. But with Durant possibly out for much (if not all) of next season, might the Knicks consider reallocating their funds to go after two other max-money free agents? They’re the Knicks, and getting any version of KD—injured or not—would be a win for them, but they at least have to think this through and consider their options now, when it was previously a no-brainer on their end. The same is true for the Clippers, who would have killed to sign a healthy KD, and every other team out there that hoped Durant would take all the money they could throw his way. And maybe they still will. Maybe they’d rather bet on him than against him, injury or not. But if the Knicks and Clippers and other teams start having second thoughts about Durant—he is a generational talent, but Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult to rehab—then how might that impact the rest of free agency and player movement? Will Kyrie suddenly rethink teaming up with KD and go his own way? Will Jimmy Butler suddenly see an opening in New York where there might not have been one? And what could all this do to the ongoing Anthony Davis sweepstakes? Might a team that wanted to go KD shopping on the free-agency market instead try to get in on a potential threeway AD swap? We could keep spinning out scenarios for a while.
There’s another variable here. It’s Durant’s choice whether he becomes a free agent. He could still decide to pick up his player option for $31.5 million next season. That is a lot of money, and it would afford him the opportunity to rehab the Achilles injury on Golden State’s dime and then become a free agent in the summer of 2020. That might mitigate some of the risks and unknowns inherent in trying to negotiate a new long-term contract with a new team while dealing with this particular injury. Cousins took a one-year, $5.3 million deal with the Warriors after suffering an Achilles injury with the Pelicans. He has a much bigger body type than Durant, which makes the recovery process more taxing, and he’s not nearly as good a player, which changes the calculus here. But Cousins also had more time to recover between when he hurt himself and when free agency and the following season began.
There is just so much here with KD that is uncharted. The fact that KD got hurt in the Finals, with free agency looming, only makes the situation more chaotic for him—and for everyone else around the league. A year ago we were waiting to see what LeBron James would do. Now we will wait to see what KD does—and, more importantly, to see how he’s doing.