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Wednesday marks a full, wild year since Kevin Durant went, in an instant, from unleashing a crossover dribble on the right wing against Serge Ibaka in the N.B.A. finals to hobbling to the sideline with a torn Achilles’ tendon in his right leg.
The stunning injury, combined with Klay Thompson’s torn left anterior cruciate ligament three days later, helped seal the Golden State Warriors’ finals loss to the Toronto Raptors after three titles in the previous four seasons. A few weeks later, Durant committed to sign with the Nets in free agency and, despite vowing to sit out his entire first season as a Net to recover, received assurances from U.S.A. Basketball officials that they would keep a roster spot open for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in case he had sufficiently healed.
The wildest twist, of course, came when those Olympics were postponed until 2021 by a global pandemic that also suddenly gave Durant the unprecedented option of playing for the Nets in July and August.
Durant, though, is in no hurry — not in his struggle to conquer the injury N.B.A. players dread most. There was an inevitable clamor, as the N.B.A. inched closer to a reboot of the 2019-20 season in recent weeks, for Durant to make his comeback at Walt Disney World Resort, since Tokyo was no longer an option. Yet as he confirmed on Friday to my longtime colleague Marc J. Spears from The Undefeated, Durant remains intent on waiting for the 2020-21 season to make his return.
“It gives me more time to get ready for next season and the rest of my career,” Durant told Spears of his strategy.
That is unquestionably the smartest strategy.
There is no upside to Durant altering his timetable. Why would he or the Nets want to rush into the unknown of what may be the most unwelcoming environment in league history?
Why place so much importance on a season that will surely be labeled by some within the league, as well as historians on the outside, as not being a true continuation of the 2019-20 campaign that was suddenly halted on March 11 by the coronavirus outbreak?
Right. It’s a reckless idea.
Durant won back-to-back championships and consecutive finals Most Valuable Player Awards in his first two seasons as a Warrior. Still, those honors did not make his legacy universally sparkle, as he might have hoped after his polarizing decision to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area in the summer of 2016. So now why expect Durant to play sooner than he or his new team had planned in the overly optimistic view that he might lead the 30-34 Nets to theoretical title glory that, six weeks before the season even restarts, is already generating frequent debates over its legitimacy?
Ring-chasing, for Durant, makes no sense.
The Nets, mind you, aren’t a title contender as currently constituted — even if Kyrie Irving were healthy.
Irving, remember, had season-ending shoulder surgery in early March. And Durant, who also tested positive for the coronavirus in March, hasn’t played for 12 months because of his Achilles’ tendon tear in Toronto — an injury that has prevented virtually every previous N.B.A. victim, with the notable exception of Dominique Wilkins in the early 1990s, from returning to their past form.
The fastest recovery from a torn Achilles’ tendon over the past 15 seasons, according to data maintained by Jeff Stotts at InStreetClothes.com, was by Wesley Matthews, who debuted for the Dallas Mavericks in October 2015, 231 days after he tore the tendon while playing with the Portland Trail Blazers. Kobe Bryant, at age 34, was sidelined for 241 days after sustaining an Achilles tear in the Los Angeles Lakers’ third-to-last game of the 2012-13 regular season.
So the timetable, for some, suggests Durant should pack for Disney World without hesitation.
But Durant, 31, isn’t trying to win a rehab race. He wants to not only be the first Achilles’ patient since Wilkins, then 32, to reclaim his All-Star status but also to re-establish himself as the game’s most lethal scorer.
The wisest path is to stay methodical and try to be uber-prepared to start next season in high gear — when LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Durant’s top-shelf contemporaries will be emerging from the shortest off-season ever.
In his interview with Spears, Durant spoke of “putting pressure on myself” during past injury absences “to hurry up and come back.” Much of Durant’s current recovery work has taken place in Southern California, in part to give him some distance from the Nets and from that type of thinking.
“I had to reset and totally focus on just me and what I wanted out of this thing,” Durant told Spears. “For the first time, I felt like I was in my own space rehabbing.
“I could really take my time and focus on myself each and every day.”
With two more guaranteed years on his Nets contract, that is precisely where Durant’s focus should be. Taking a long-term view is best for the Nets, too, no matter where you stand on the merits of an N.B.A. postseason that will be played at a centralized site with no fans, no travel and increased injury risk for many players after an abrupt three-month break. They simply aren’t ready to challenge the elite now.
Support seems to be growing among my peers for the idea that whatever team emerges with the title after the mentally grueling isolation of a three-month stay in the N.B.A.’s tightly controlled bubble, even without so many of the usual hallmarks of playoff basketball, will be lauded for its strength, resolve and adaptability, and branded a worthy champion.
I am not there yet, but I also think A) We can save that discourse for another Tuesday and B) None of that talk should influence Durant’s thinking on this unhappy anniversary or any other occasion this summer.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line. (Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: Michael Jordan was insanely competitive and so were Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett? Which active players would make your all-N.B.A. Psychotically Competitive Team? — Mike Chamernik (Chicago)
Stein: I’d like to give you a definitive list, but it’s not as easy to laser in on a fivesome as you might think.
Loud, overt intensity — one of Kevin Garnett’s specialties — is often equated with “competitiveness,” but the reality is that it’s not fair to measure that characteristic strictly through reputation or noise.
I can’t forget what Kobe Bryant told me after Tim Duncan announced his retirement in July 2016. Duncan was “more cutthroat than people give him credit for,” Bryant said. “I loved everything about him on the court.”
Visible intensity obviously helps in some cases. Houston’s Russell Westbrook, who so often plays angry, would have to be considered among the most competitive active players. The player Houston dealt to Oklahoma City to acquire Westbrook — Chris Paul — is right there with him. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miami’s Jimmy Butler are two more elite players regularly associated with ferocity, but such assessments, as we should have learned by watching Duncan rack up five championships with a demeanor unlike anyone mentioned so far, are not simple.
Portland’s Damian Lillard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry are three examples of rugged competitors, but none generate much hype in this category. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, of course, might be the best example of understated ruthlessness among active players.
Q: The sad part is I’ve been conditioned to be more excited about the Knicks’ off-seasons than anything they’ve done in-season for some years now. — @chewbaka1963 from Twitter
Stein: No question was posed in this response to my recent tweet about the Knicks’ looming coaching search. This reply had the tone of an apology for rooting for the Knicks to be excluded from the N.B.A.’s return so the search could begin in earnest.
But apologies are unnecessary. It’s natural, with new front-office leadership, to allow yourself to get swept up in the hope for change after the Knicks’ seventh consecutive season without a playoff berth.
Moving on as quickly as possible is an inevitable wish for a fan base that has mostly known misery since the team’s defeat to San Antonio in the 1999 N.B.A. finals. This season, abbreviated or not, is bound to be remembered for another extended stretch of dysfunction for the James L. Dolan-owned fallen giants, including the curiously timed ousters of Coach David Fizdale and the team president Steve Mills, Dolan’s dispute with Spike Lee and multiple instances in which the sad state of the franchise inspired loud “Sell The Team” chants at Madison Square Garden.
The trouble, of course, is that we still know so little about what Leon Rose plans to do as Mills’s successor. Far bigger problems have obviously emerged all over the world since Rose was named to the post on March 2, but the fact remains that he has yet to share with Knicks fans even a hint of his vision for running the team — or the challenges he faces as a longtime player agent with zero front-office experience — after 99 days on the job.
Rose has hired three senior executives to bolster the organization’s personnel department (Brock Aller, Walt Perrin and Frank Zanin) and extended Scott Perry’s stay as general manager for at least one more year. Now, with the Knicks’ exclusion from the 22-team field official, Rose is poised to begin a coaching search that is widely expected to install Tom Thibodeau as Fizdale’s full-time replacement — with Mike Miller, the interim coach, likely to be handed a new role in the organization. Yet the silence persists.
Q: Can I offer a possible solution to provide some measure of home-court advantage when the 22 teams show up in July to play out the season at a single site? If the “home” team, on a neutral court, is down by 4 points or fewer at the end of regulation, it would still force the game to overtime. The final score in regulation would stand, though, if the “away” team is within four points at the buzzer. This could restore the home-court advantage that higher-seeded teams worked so hard during the regular season to earn. — Reed Resnikoff.
Stein: It’s certainly not the most outlandish suggestion of the month. It’s also far better than the proposal to let teams bring their own hardwood. The assembly and disassembly of individual team floors would require extra time and manpower — neither of which fits within the N.B.A.’s aim to keep the planned Disney World bubble as tightly controlled as possible.
But I really don’t see any of the proposals that have been circulating in recent days to try to replicate some semblance of home-court advantage gaining any traction. In pretty much every case, it sounds like a step (or more) too far.
With no fans allowed in the stands, no travel involved and the longest layoff from full-speed basketball that most N.B.A. players have ever experienced, the league’s 22-team format to reboot the season is already unlike anything the N.B.A. has ever witnessed. All of that works against concepts like yours gaining support, because the league is already sensitive to the notion that this postseason will look too untraditional.
Any measure that widens the gap between how the N.B.A. postseason usually functions and this season’s format is bound to be met with resistance.
Last week’s list of the N.B.A.’s head coaches of color inexcusably omitted Charlotte’s James Borrego, who is Hispanic. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is Filipino-American, and there are eight African-American head coaches: J.B. Bickerstaff (Cleveland), Dwane Casey (Detroit), Alvin Gentry (New Orleans), Nate McMillan (Indiana), Lloyd Pierce (Atlanta), Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers), Jacque Vaughn (Nets) and Monty Williams (Phoenix).
Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of Kevin Durant tearing his right Achilles’ tendon in Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals. In each of the past two seasons, four players have sustained a torn Achilles’ tendon, which has historically been the hardest injury to recover from for N.B.A. players. According to data maintained by Jeff Stotts — a certified athletic trainer who writes about sports injuries on his site, In Street Clothes — going into the 2018-19 season there had only been four torn Achilles’ tendons sustained by N.B.A. players over the previous three seasons.
The seven other players, alongside Durant, who sustained Achilles’ tendon tears last season and this season with when the injury occurred in parentheses: Indiana’s C.J. Wilcox (September 2018), Dallas’ J.J. Barea (January 2019), Washington’s John Wall (January 2019), New Orleans’ Darius Miller (August 2019), Portland’s Rodney Hood (December 2019), the Nets’ David Nwaba (December 2019) and Dallas’ Dwight Powell (January 2020).
The maximum number of games any of the 22 teams bound for the N.B.A.’s planned reboot of the 2019-20 season at the Walt Disney World Resort would most likely play is 36 — with games scheduled over just 73 days (July 31 to Oct. 12). That number would stretch to 38 if a No. 9 seed in either conference forced a play-in round by finishing four games or fewer behind the No. 8 seed.
Atlanta’s exclusion from the 22-team field at Disney World could mean that the Hawks’ Vince Carter has played his last N.B.A. game. Carter, 43, has appeared in 1,541 regular-season games, which puts him third on the career list behind Robert Parish’s 1,611 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1,560. Having started his career during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, Carter is also the only player in league history to play in four different decades. But he lost out on a potential April 10 farewell visit to Toronto, Carter’s first of eight N.B.A. teams, because of the league’s abrupt shutdown in March.
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