The Golden State Warriors’ worst fears came true Monday night when their All-Star forward suffered an Achilles tear in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Kevin Durant had to be assisted as he walked off the floor after sustaining an injury that is considered the worst that a basketball player can have.
Coincidentally, his teammate DeMarcus Cousins suffered the same injury just over a year ago and he still isn’t 100 percent yet. Just like Durant, Cousins is also a multiple All-Star player who hopes to regain the glory of his earlier years in the league. The question now is whether that’s possible at all for both players.
Among the NBA’s elite superstars who suffered a torn Achilles, the only one who was able to play at the same level as he did before the injury was the Atlanta Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins. Not Elgin Baylor. Not Patrick Ewing. Not Kobe Bryant. And so far, not Cousins.
The injury occurred in January of 1992. Prior to the ill-fated game, Wilkins was averaging 28.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game. He was playing at his peak best at the time with a scoring average that was his highest in four years when he tore his Achilles.
Surprisingly, the Human Highlight Reel recovered quickly enough that he was able to play in the team’s 1992-93 season-opener in November, scoring 30 points in 39 minutes of action. He finished the year with a 29.9-point scoring average that is unheard of before or since from someone who had an Achilles tear.
Here are his numbers in the two seasons following the injury:
27.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 45.4 percent FGs, 36.4 minutes per game
That’s an astounding stat line for any player. It’s as though ‘Nique never suffered the injury at all. It wasn’t until three seasons later where we saw a decline in his game but that was to be expected of a player who turned 35 at the time. Unfortunately, Wilkins is the first and only player to sustain that level of excellence where others’ performances have diminished.
Consider the following set of former and current NBA superstars who suffered the same injury as Durant did:
Baylor was 36 years old when got injured on Nov. 27, 1970, in the second game of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers. The year before that, he had averages of 24.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists on 48.6 percent shooting per game in 837 games. After the injury? He only played in nine games the next year averaging 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Such was Baylor’s deterioration in play that he retired during the season just as the Lakers were about to make history with a 33-game winning streak, which eventually led to an NBA title.
Ewing is a true warrior. He is considered one of the top 10 centers of all time. Sadly, the all-time great New York Knicks center had to go through the harrowing injury as well. He suffered the injury in Game 1 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals but it wasn’t until he played in Game 2 when the team’s doctors understood the gravity of the situation.
His averages then were already declining—17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks in 34.2 minutes. He was, after all, already 37 at the time. When he returned, he only had one season scoring in double figures. His last two years were just painful to watch—8.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 20.9 minutes a night in 144 games.
We all remember Kobe’s final game where he scored 60 points, the most ever by a player in his last game as a pro. But that performance doesn’t erase the memory of how difficult it was for him to play after his Achilles tear on April 12, 2013, just before the playoffs that year. Bryant’s stats that season were right up there with some of his best. He averaged 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals on 46.3 percent shooting in 38.6 minutes an outing.
He returned in December to play six games before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Two more seasons to go and Bryant called it quits at 37 years of age. He had one good season in 2014-15 with a 22.3-point average but that was his lowest mark since his third year in the league. Both age and injuries robbed Bryant of his explosiveness and some of his leaping ability. His final stats those three seasons after the Achilles tear and knee injury? 18.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 36.6 percent FGs, 30.3 minutes per contest.
Last but not the least in our study of these superstars who suffered Achilles tears is the Warriors’ Cousins. As a member of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, the 6-foot-11 center was playing like an MVP candidate with stats that would have easily made him eligible for consideration for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
The 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks in 36.2 minutes of playing time last season were outstanding considering the fact that he shared the court with another All-Star big man in Anthony Davis. He was only 27 years old when the injury occurred, unlike the other players on this list who were already in their 30s.
After returning to the court this season, he played 30 regular-season games, injured his quad in the first round of the postseason, but made a comeback in the Finals. He has had some brief moments of brilliance but it’s hard to tell how good he can be after the Achilles injury until next season.
For the regular season, Cousins averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks in just 25.7 minutes a game. Not bad but they are far from his usual high standards. Because of his young age when he tore his Achilles, he has a chance to get back to being a dominant force in the league again.
Other notable players who suffered the same type of injury are LaPhonso Ellis, Voshon Leonard, Maurice Taylor, Elton Brand, Anderson Varejao, Chauncey Billups, Rudy Gay, Wes Matthews, and Brandon Jennings. Most of these players overcame the odds and returned to the court again but were never the same with some of them playing only a season or two before retiring.
What now for Kevin Durant?
Because of how good he is, Durant can surprise us and become one of the few success stories after an Achilles tear. That’s a big if, however, since his age suggests that he is bound for a steep decline in performance in the years after he returns to play. But he is one of the top three players in this league and even if that decline is as steep as expected, he may still be an All-Star player regardless.
Let’s hope for the best for Durant who will try to add more years into a Hall-of-Fame bound career.
Thanks to Basketball-Reference.com for the stats and information, SB Nation’s Tim Cato and Mike Prada and The Sacramento Bee’s Benjy Egel whose research into the injuries and the superstars mentioned were invaluable to this article.