The Case For Still Maxing KD
When Kevin Durant collapsed to the floor in the second quarter of Game 5, everything that we thought we knew about the offseason was about to be turned on its head.
Kleiman, a noted Knicks supporter, was every one of us Knick fans: equal parts traumatized and left to grapple with the ramifications of such an injury. Now, a few days removed from that fateful night, it's clear that nothing should change with the Knicks' plans; pursuing Kevin Durant should still be the priority.
It doesn't take a doctor to know that a ruptured achilles is perhaps the most debilitating injury in professional basketball. Not only can they take up to a year to fully recover from, but there are no guarantees that one will ever be the same player again. Armchair doctors like me can tell you that a player's lateral movement and explosiveness are two of the most at-risk parts of one's game, and there's a good chance that at least some part of Durant's playing style will have to be altered. I may just be a delusional optimist, but despite all of the really negative shit regarding achilles injuries I still think it's conceivable that KD can return and regain his form as a top-10 player. Just as there are examples of players tearing their achilles and never playing again, there are also pertinent cases of guys who have experienced career renaissances post-injury:
Although Cousins has caught heavy flak for looking like he was playing with cinderblocks in his shoes during the Finals, he actually had a rather decent regular season, with efficiency numbers on par with his career norms and the second-highest win shares per 48 minutes (.151) of his career. Those are encouraging developments for a player with just about the worst possible body for a torn achilles, and the torn quad that he suffered in the first round is also important to consider regarding his slow-footedness in the Finals.
Another positive modern-day example, Gay, like Durant, was 30 when he tore his achilles. It took him a season to find his footing, but this past year he put together arguably the most effective season of his career, posting a career-high true shooting percentage and picking his spots on a Spurs team that valued smarts over athleticism. Gay has already reached out to Durant, who he has known since high school, and though he admits that he wasn't initially the same player post-injury he eventually grew familiar with his new body.
"People forget that he is 7 feet tall and shoots the way he does,” Gay said. “Even if he can’t be completely himself initially, he still will be better than most players. That’s the worst-case [scenario]. I know he will be fine."
Lastly, there's Wilkins, the most famous success story for the injury. After rupturing his achilles at 32-years-old, Wilkins returned to have some of the best seasons of his career, averaging just under 30 points per game in his comeback season. He is the only example of a player to have the injury that's at Durant's caliber, and showed that it's possible to reach an elite level following an achilles tear. Every body is different, but an achilles tear is far from a retirement sentence. Given Durant's uniquely perimeter oriented game, it wouldn't be surprising for him to have a Dirk Nowitzkian final chapter to his career.
Durant owns a $31.5 million player option for next season, and while the injury feeds into speculation that he may take that option, it's unlikely given that the Warriors and at least a few other teams are still willing to offer him the max. I get it, maxing what will be a 32-year-old coming off an achilles injury is not exactly the sexiest move, but it's hard to envision a scenario (other than signing Kawhi Leonard) in which the Knicks better allocate that money. Durant in all likelihood will still have most, if not all, the value of a max player when he does eventually return, and another year of accumulating assets may end up being a blessing in disguise. This injury makes it close to impossible for the Knicks to contend next season, so why not let the kids grow one more year? For Durant however, signing onto a tank job just weeks after one's championship team lost in perhaps the most brutal way possible is a tough sell, especially considering that Durant has already told Klay Thompson that the Warriors have "unfinished business." Yet if he is as intent on growing his brand and solidifying his legacy as the season-long rumors have suggested, then going after Durant is a good look for the Knicks. The optics of such a signing could certainly be attractive to other top players around the league as it would show that the Knicks have the players' best financial interests in mind in an era of player empowerment. Stars are looking to dictate their futures more than ever before, and the Knicks advertising themselves as a player friendly destination in which stars can mold the team how they like could be their best shot at landing premier free agents.
Coming into this offseason, the Knicks were looking to pull off an unprecedented roster makeover in which neither of their top two players were homegrown. This is especially anomalous for an NBA champion, as The Ringer notes that the 2004 Pistons were the last championship team to win without a homegrown star. Prior to them, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1983 76ers, who did it by signing Julius Erving and trading for Moses Malone. With KD's injury, the prospects of the Knicks beating those odds next year are all but impossible. However, even though history suggests that building a superteam overnight is a fool's errand, it doesn't mean that the Knicks' offseason plans were foolish. Welcome to a new era of player movement, one in which "pre-agency" is now the norm for stars and no organization (not even the Spurs) is safe from a franchise player's trade request. I'd liken it to the transfer market in soccer, where players bounce around the various leagues much more frequently to take on different challenges and unique opportunities in new countries. Club loyalty exists, but doesn't hold the same weight as it does in the NBA. Take a player like Neymar, someone who was in one of the best situations imaginable at Barcelona two years ago, playing alongside the world's best player in Lionel Messi yet still spurned the club for Paris Saint-Germain in order to have more of the spotlight on himself. Now, it seems like the NBA is headed down that path, and one of the most influential people involved in these rumors is Rich Paul, superagent and superfriend of LeBron James as well as the founder of Klutch Sports. When asked about the Knicks for a recent Sports Illustrated feature, Paul said that the Knicks were an attractive destination for his client Anthony Davis because of the alluring New York market.
"The only difference is, they don’t have as many championships as the Lakers," Paul says. "They got a tradition. It’s a big market—not that it’s only big markets. They have cap space, flexibility, they’re able to absorb more than one star. What’s wrong with that?"
Comments like that essentially affirm that the Knicks are not idiots for positioning themselves for marquee stars, and had a few variables broken differently, then perhaps the pipe dream would be looking much more realistic. A hobbled KD is still worth pursuing, and doesn't change the fact that the best pitch that the Knicks can offer to a star will always be freedom to pursue whatever it is they wish in the New York market as well as cap space for a buddy to join them over the actual basketball infrastructure. Another year of rebuilding would help the Knicks develop the roster into something a little more palatable for prospective free agents, and either way could help create more assets that can be used in trades for a more KD-friendly roster. Durant was never ours, but that fateful play during Game 5 was a gut punch that confirmed that this rebuild was never going to happen overnight. The best things are worth waiting for, and right now we've got all day.