Kevin Durant’s clinic
How to recover from one of the sports’ worst injuries
BY TOM HABERSTROH
In the 2019 NBA Finals, with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Kevin Durant crossed the ball through his legs in isolation against Toronto Raptors big man Serge Ibaka. Durant’s legs spread wide, like mishandled chopsticks. As he propelled himself forward mid-dribble, he pushed off his right foot and … you know what happened next. Perhaps the highest-profile leg injury in NBA history.
A torn Achilles tendon is an injury that often ends careers. A ruptured Achilles ended Isiah Thomas’s 13-year Hall of Fame run. Elgin Baylor attempted to return from a torn Achilles in 1970 before mercifully calling off the comeback tour nine games in. Kobe Bryant was never the same after that April night against Golden State in 2013.
A game or two into Durant’s return, it felt like the league was holding its collective breath. Eighteen games in, though, he looks incredible. Somehow at 32, he’s dunking more than his rookie year. As a Net he’s averaging an astounding 29.5 points per game, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. His true-shooting percentage is 66 percent, if he maintains that it’ll be his best ever.
What’s the secret?
Several interesting things happened in the aftermath of Durant’s injury. One of the first: Just twenty days later, he signed with Brooklyn—surprising even the Nets themselves.
Many reasons have been reported for Durant’s Brooklyn move. One factor that probably doesn’t get enough attention is Dr. Martin O’Malley.
Dr. O’Malley, whose office is a short ride from the Nets’ practice facility, has been the Nets’ team physician for nearly a decade.
Based out of New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, Dr. O’Malley’s hands are some of the most sought-after fixers in sports. Durant himself had entrusted O’Malley to fix his problematic Jones fracture in 2015.
When Joel Embiid underwent foot surgery to rescue his yet-to-take-off NBA career, the Sixers went to Dr. O’Malley’s practice. When Rudy Gay needed his Achilles repaired, it was with Dr. O’Malley. Kevin Love … you get the picture.
Two Finals MVPs after his first visit to O’Malley, Durant came calling again.
The surgery reportedly went well, and there was some hope that Durant might see the court near the end of this first season as a Net. If you did the math on Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tear—he returned in eight months—it seemed possible. But, despite signs his recovery was on track, Durant stayed off the court.
Then a global pandemic suspended the NBA operation. Rather than return midseason during August in an unprecedented bubble environment, Durant held off again, choosing to return for the 2020-21 season. Then the start of this season got pushed back, too.
All in all, Durant ended up with 18 months between games. Far longer than anyone expected, 10 months more than Kobe, and maybe brilliant.
According to injury tracker Jeff Stotts, who runs InStreetClothes.com and the SMART injury database, there have been 29 Achilles tears in the NBA since 2005. For those that did make it back to the league, the players saw an average recovery of just about one year (11.9 months, to be exact). Hardly anyone was sidelined longer than Durant, but one player that was—John Wall—is another candidate for best Achilles recovery of all time.
Bryant returned in less than eight months, with Hollywood fanfare and Mamba Mentality. But he looked like a shell of himself, registering more turnovers than made baskets in a nine-game stretch before his knee gave out. Sure, Bryant was four years older than Durant was when he ruptured his Achilles, but arguably the bigger difference was recovery time.
Dr. Richard Ferkel estimates he’s performed about a thousand Achilles tear surgeries. DeMarcus Cousins, Wesley Matthews, Rodney Hood, and most recently, Klay Thompson have all passed through his offices at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute.
Ferkel wants to see more data before he determines if there’s something to NBA players’ taking a long time off after Achilles surgeries. He notes that Matthews returned in about seven months and is still playing at a high level. But there’s a strong argument that rest helps.
“The longer you’re out, probably the easier it is to get back,” Dr. Ferkel says. “That might be why it’s a little easier for Durant and other people to get back at a high level because they had a longer period of time to rehab and work at it.”
Dr. Ferkel—who, of course, didn’t operate on Durant but tracks NBA players closely—is confident that a full recovery takes years. It’s all about year two. The first season back is just the feeling out phase. Rust gives way to reps.
“We’ve always seen that when people get back, the following season they’re even better,” says Dr. Ferkel. “Because it just takes that long. You’re just not 100 percent when you get back.”
In other words, Durant could get even better.
When I initially reached Ferkel two years ago, his client, DeMarcus Cousins, was looking to recapture his All-NBA status with the Warriors. Dr. Ferkel believed weight loss was a key factor to his success. (Cousins performed admirably well before tearing his quad muscle in the first round of the playoffs).
For Durant, weight doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Listed generously at 225 pounds, he looks as lanky as ever. To Dr. Ferkel, that likely has served him well.
“It certainly will make him a little more flexible and nimble in terms of moving and putting a little less stress on his Achilles,” Dr. Ferkel says.
Watching the tape of post-Achilles clients, Dr. Ferkel looks for bursts of force. “Explosive movements, for sure,” Dr. Ferkel says. “Jumping up and dunking the ball. Or jumping up quickly to block a shot. Quick movements as you’re spinning around, coming off a pick and trying to either drive down the lane or take a quick jump shot. Those are the kinds of things that require a lot of quick explosive motions with a lot of torque, twisting, and turning.”
In other words, the things that Durant specializes in.
“Those are the hardest things to get back.”
For someone recovering from an Achilles tear, the Nets offense might not seem ideal. Orchestrated by “Seven Seconds Or Less” veterans Steve Nash and his assistant coach Mike D’Antoni, the Nets offense is all explosive movements, flying down the floor for quick buckets. According to inpredictable.com tracking data, the Nets take just 8.7 seconds to shoot after a defensive rebound, the speediest in the league. (And faster than the Nash/D’Antoni Suns, who never got faster than 9.6 seconds.)
Durant leads the stampede. The 32-year-old is currently logging a career-high in transition plays per game, per Synergy Sports tracking data. In 13 years, his best had been 5.9 transition points on 4.9 plays per game. This season: 6.5 points from 5.1 plays.
He’s thriving in Nash’s go-go-go offense.
Durant has shown no hesitation pushing off that heel. In overtime, against the Hawks in late January, Durant was 90 feet from his own basket, the furthest player on the floor, when Kyrie Irving stole the ball. The clock read 2:52.
Durant screeched to a halt, turned, and pushed off—that foot. Many players may have watched Irving work his magic. Durant raced.
To date this season, Durant has launched more dunks than Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, or his younger, bouncier replacement on the Warriors, Andrew Wiggins.Barely five seconds later, Durant launched himself over and through the Hawks’ defense for another dunk.
Kevin Durant is back. MVP discussion is warranted. Stuck in COVID-19 protocols occasionally throughout the season and resting on select back-to-back sets, he has only played 18 of the team’s 27 games. But the Nets are 11-7 in games Durant plays and just 4-5 in games that he doesn’t.
Offensively, Durant has been devastating to opposing defenses. A menace in transition, he also has the quick-twitch half-court game on lock as well. Looking at the top isolation players in the NBA, where skill meets speed, you’ll find Kyrie Irving at the top of the list at 132.3 points per 100 plays, according to Synergy tracking. But slotted at No. 3 on the list: his teammate, Durant, at 127.0 points per 100 plays (Sandwiched between them is, shockingly, Wiggins at 128.6). With that kind of length, handle, and shooting ability, he’s just about unguardable. When Stephen Curry won his unanimous MVP, he averaged 30.1 points per game on a 66.9 true-shooting percentage. Durant right now? He’s at 29.5 and 66.0.
The on-court, off-court data is even more staggering. In the 124 minutes that Kyrie Irving and James Harden have played on the floor together without Durant, the Nets—with all their offensive superpowers—have been outscored by seven points, giving up a ghastly 124.8 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats tracking.
With Durant on the floor, the rating sharpens to a more respectable 112.8. Stitched Achilles and all, Durant is the buoy that keeps the Nets’ championship hopes afloat. If Durant keeps this up, he’ll barge into the MVP conversation.
Something is going on in the NBA with Achilles injuries. In 2019, there were six tears—twice as many as any season since 2005. There’s a lot of pressure to solve the riddle of what has long seen as the game’s most devastating injury. The season is young, but so far Durant is the role model.
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