Is KD’s Return the Greatest Injury Comeback in NBA History?

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In the realm of sports, a torn Achilles tendon injury is known as the kiss of death. In the last thirty years, 44 NBA players have ruptured their achilles tendons. It is an anomaly of an injury that occurs largely from non-contact maneuvers. Players describe the feeling as being unexpectedly kicked in the heel, followed by confusion, agonizing pain and bewilderment. Out of these 44 players, nearly half never played another game in the NBA and all but Dominique Wilkins in the remaining half were no longer able to produce their career averages at that point in totality or with the same efficiency. 

Now, we have the latest victim of this gruesome injury in Kevin Durant who, after 18 months of being sidelined, has returned to being the statistical outlier fans have grown accustomed to praising. Durant has not played in an official NBA game since the 2019 Finals, a timeline double that of the average return schedule for such an injury. With this extended recovery period, Durant has averaged 26.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game on 53.2% shooting and 69.2% from 3-point range in four games of play on a minute restriction . Every stat closely resembles Durant’s pre-injury production peak except for his rebounding, which is primarily due to the Brooklyn Nets already having personnel to fill this role. Considering the numbers and the eye test Durant has passed with flying colors, is it safe to say that the all time great scoring juggernaut that is KD is back? Will Durant’s return be remembered as the greatest injury comeback in NBA history?

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant goes up for a shot during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in New York. Photo by Kathy Willens/AP

For all the anticipation surrounding Durant’s return, the nonchalance that fans have exhibited toward Durant’s on-court showing this season has been shocking. It seemed as if his 29 points in 33 minutes was just another day at the office as the Nets blew out the contender Boston Celtics at TD Garden by 28 points. Durant has miraculously reverted back to vintage form, dazzling defenders with explosive cuts to the basket, contesting shots at the rim and showcasing ability to change speed quickly with astounding body control while hoisting up his renowned jumpshot. Durant has displayed that he has no physical handicap and will get the shot opportunities that he wants and not fold to the whims of defenders. His athleticism in transition and ability to use both his physical  prowess to disregard capable NBA defenders is unprecedented. Even Dominique Wilkins, the lone historical exception to the trend of Achilles tendon injuries utterly derailing careers, had to remodel his game to compensate for his diminished athletic ability. For Durant, a 32-year-old seven-foot two-way forward, this showing is awe-inspiring and comes with a huge sigh of relief for all fans of basketball. 

To further understand the magnitude of this injury’s disheartening history, a medical study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine tracked the productivity of 18 players who suffered significant Achilles tendon injuries over a 23-year span (1988-2011). The study found  that seven players were forced to exit the league, returning players missed an average of 56 games and saw their player efficiency rating (PER) decline by an average of 5.8 points in their first two seasons back in the league. Many of these players who returned and played one or two seasons were unable to play at all or at NBA levels after this period, forcing them to retire from the league as well. 

Additionally, a more recent 2015 CBS sports article writes 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.” They also found that the rate of 3-point shots attempted rose by 21%, showing that returning players were forced to settle for contested long range attempts after losing their former mobility with the basketball. It does not take a basketball prodigy or statistical savant to see that an Achilles tendon injury is bleak and that Durant is truly in uncharted territory. 

Sports physicians, trainers and other athletically specialized medical experts categorize rehab from such injuries as both a physical and mental challenge. Durant spoke on the issue publically to the NY Daily news saying that “I have been through surgeries and injury before, but the longest recovery was three months,” he said. “The first phase of the Achilles was three months. You can’t walk around, you have to use a scooter.” 

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant drives around Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020. Photo by Chris Carlson/AP

The Achilles tendon is one of the strongest connective fibers in the human anatomy and any rupture or tear takes a great deal of time to heal completely. This part of the body is critical towards all athletic actions such as running, jumping and changing speeds and directions. The mental toll and likely frustration from needing assistance for seemingly mundane tasks is enormous. There is mental trauma and doubt that arises from severe injuries, especially when an athlete has undergone several retiterations of rehab for various ailments. 

Durant has shown strength, fortitude and a high level of poise to come back from this devastating injury despite all the odds. Regardless of how fans felt about his prior decisions to join the 73-9 Golden State Warriors team in 2016, how can someone not be a fan of him now for his game, his role model perseverance and contribution to the game of basketball?  

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