When athletes tear their Achilles, they usually never look the same. Some retire, some ride benches for the rest of their careers after being starters but some find a way to get…better than they were before their injury?
It’s not talked about enough, but Kevin Durant’s recovery from his torn Achilles that he suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals has been nothing short of remarkable. In 137 regular season games since the injury, the University of Texas product figured out a way to get even better. Averaging more points per game, better shooting splits, and more assists, Durant has proved all the prognosticators wrong who thought that he could never be the same.
To help contextualize how truly remarkable his comeback has been, I was fortunate to get a hold of Dr. Nirav Pandya, an Associate Professor at the University of California San Francisco and 95.7 The Game’s Injury Analyst.
When asked about how Durant’s recovery would have been different if his injury occurred 10 years before, Dr. Pandya said, “Achilles recovery has progressed significantly over the past decade. The surgical techniques have become less invasive, the repairs have become stronger, and (most importantly) the rehabilitation after surgery has become more advanced.” Consequently, “athletes can limit some of the major problems with this injury such as stiffness and weakness.”
“The one player who returned to a high level after this type of injury was Dominique Wilkins who I believe was 32 when he suffered the injury” Dr. Pandya said when mentioning other players who have suffered torn Achilles in the past. “He returned to a high level the following year which was quite remarkable given his vertical style of play and the fact that it was several decades ago. Klay Thompson would be the other example of a player who returned close to his prior form after suffering this injury.”
Due to Dr. Pandya’s close following of the Golden State Warriors, he was able to compare how both Durant and Klay Thompson have both recovered from the same injury in recent years.
“They both took a good amount of time to make sure their bodies were ready to return to play. Many athletes try to rush back but extra time working on strength, flexibility, and endurance can make a huge impact in the long term. Both players did have stretches in their return where they met or exceeded their prior year’s statistics; this is something you simply don’t see that often with players coming of [sic] an Achilles injury. “
With Durant immediately making a strong impact immediately when he returned from his gruesome injury, he’s proven to be an outlier from the norm.
“Most data in NBA players show that it [sic] there will be career long alterations in the player efficiency rating, minutes played / game, and games started. Plus, it can take 2-3 years post-injury for athletes to finally feel somewhat “normal.” Some may never get back to the same level (which is more common).”
“The prolonged rehab is grueling and the difficulty with re-gaining explosiveness / agility can be tough for athletes,” Dr. Pandya said when discussing the hardest part of recovering from a torn Achilles. “In addition, the mental part of the rehabilitation process (fear of tearing the Achilles again) can be hard for many athletes to overcome. In addition, avoiding secondary injuries can be tough that result from your mechanics being altered; especially early in the recovery period.”
When he was on JJ Redick’s Podcast last year, The Old Man and the Three, Durant talked in detail about his rehab process, citing some of the trials and tribulations he went through while recovering.
“I was going through my Achilles I had a lot of those days where like, I felt my jumper felt good and then it would feel a little off here and then I went I remember I went on a break for my birthday I was in Cabo and I swear I didn’t have a good time because I was like F***. Like I can’t believe what is going on with me basically like, I’m shooting the sh** left, I’m just going right, I was really thinking about this, and I had to, it’s like questions you ask yourself like, am I too involved in this sh**?”.
Just like all the great players, Durant is measured most on the winning that he has done in his career. However, sometimes we just talk about the games that players win or lose. When it comes to his performance in the rehab process, he should be considered a champion. Just like a lot of his critics like to point out that “not all rings are worth the same,” not all playoff performances should be evaluated the same as well.
The Slim Reaper deserves much more credit than he’s been given for some of his recent playoff performances, especially his two spectacular performances vs the Bucks in 2021. With James Harden severely injured and Kyrie Irving completely unavailable, Durant put the Nets on his shoulders, almost single-handedly defeating the future champion Milwaukee Bucks. Playing 95% of the final three games of the series, Durant put up historic performances in games 5 and 7, scoring 49 and 48 points respectively and made one of the clutchest shots in recent NBA history, and perhaps if his shoe size was a half size shorter, he would have three rings right now instead of two.
Many Phoenix Suns fans may be a bit disappointed in the team’s performance this past postseason. Every game against the Clippers felt like a nail-biter even though Phoenix won in 5. It took two heroic performances from Devin Booker and Kevin Durant to eke out victories against Denver, all just to get humiliated again in an elimination game at the Footprint center, for the second straight year. For this upcoming season though, Durant is having his most stable offseason since his final year in Golden State, and will look to continue to build to his impressive resume that he’s put together since his injury.