The catastrophic injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson this month cast a pall over the NBA Finals. The Toronto Raptors had firm control over the series long before Thompson tore his ACL, but the Golden State Warriors’ chances of winning the series essentially ended when Durant hurt his Achilles in Game 5.
The Finals are more historically significant, but the timing of the two injuries has shaped an offseason that will change the hierarchy of the league for years to come.
Durant and Thompson were long expected to be among the most sought after players in free agency this summer. While the pair remains coveted, an already lost 19-20 season makes a long-term commitment risky for any franchise.
Modern medicine has changed how we think about Achilles and ACL injuries and they are a work hazard in basketball equivalent to carpal tunnel to a nine-to-fiver. Despite that, the severity, timing and stage on which Durant and Thompson went down still has the league reeling.
For this year’s rookie class, just days away from their first significant payday, the reaction has ranged from shrug inducing to sobering.
“You never know what’s going to happen and I hate to see people go down and get injured. Sadly, it’s a part of the game and it’s a part of sports,” Jarrett Culver said. “When things happen like that it makes you appreciate what you have each and everyday. It makes you more thankful for the game and that you have the chance to go out and play.”
Tyler Herro, who enjoyed a meteoric rise up draft boards, echoed Culver’s sentiments.
“It’s unfortunate to see it,” Herro said. “Obviously, any injury like that is tough to see. For me, and I think the rest of the players, it just shows how anything can happen at any given moment, so don’t take anything for granted.”
De’Andre Hunter broke his leg in high school, placing his basketball future in jeopardy long before the possibility of a professional career and millions of dollars were a reality. He recovered thanks to a strong support system and returned even better than before. Then tragedy struck again, he hurt his wrist as Virginia was on the cusp of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
“I felt like I took basketball for granted before [the injury]. After going through that, you never know,” Hunter said.
“At any moment, at any point in the game, you just never know. Even when I broke my wrist in the ACC semifinals, it felt that same way. It happened on one play and all of a sudden I couldn’t play in the NCAA tournament. Play every game you can, play every play and try to have fun while you are out there.”
Hunter’s approach gives us a look into the mind of an elite-level athlete, perhaps explaining why Durant insisted on returning from a calf injury and Thompson attempted two free throws and got back on defense with only one stable knee.
“They were warriors, literally and being on that team, but they went out and fought and I respect that about those guys. It’s really inspiring,” Cam Reddish said.
Some of the NBA’s incoming stars preached mindfulness, while others seem to have become numb to the occupational hazards common to basketball.
“I wouldn’t say it changes my approach,” Keldon Johnson said. “It’s basketball; it comes with injuries. It takes a toll on your body. They were playing the game they love and unfortunately they got hurt. It doesn’t change me.”
Jaxson Hayes added: “It doesn’t change me. It was definitely interesting watching the whole situation and what it might mean though.”
There is honor and maturity in both responses. Players can’t afford to step onto the court thinking about the possibility of a cataclysmic injury but they shouldn’t take their great fortune for granted either.
The NBA provides us with the highest level of basketball in the world, which also brings the highest highs and lowest lows.
“It’s faster and it’s a lot more physical than people think with the referees and touching and stuff,” Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be mentally strong as well because there is a lot of stuff that comes at you and can put you in a blender.”