Kevin Durant's Achilles casts cloud over Warriors' present and future

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NBC Sports

Kevin Durant's Achilles casts cloud over Warriors' present and future

TORONTO -- When Kevin Durant went down grabbing his right Achilles tendon early in the second quarter of Game 5, Scotiabank Arena fans didn’t seem to know what to do. 

First, they cheered for the injury, mocking the Finals MVP as he laid on the floor in pain. But Raptors players Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry immediately motioned for the crowd to quiet down in solidarity of a fellow player. The arena quickly fell to a deafening silence. Then, they cheered for the human being on the ground. 

“K-D, K-D,” the home crowd shouted as Durant limped off the floor under the assistance of Warriors director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini. 

It was a confusing, perplexing and bizarre turn of events. Medical and performance sources around the league that spoke with NBCSports.com were just as befuddled as those sitting in Scotiabank Arena.

“This,” one longtime NBA trainer said, “is just unheard of.”

To be clear, the Warriors have the most information in this situation, both medically and personally. They have access to Durant’s medicals over the last three years. In consultation with Durant after the morning shootaround, the team decided to clear him ahead of Monday’s Game 5, the first time he’d suit up to play since May 8 when he suffered what the team called a mild calf strain. The team repeatedly denied it was an Achilles injury despite public speculation.

But Durant still hurt his Achilles on Monday night. Every time a player ties up his shoelaces and plays in an NBA game, he is exposing himself to injury. Perhaps this was a fluke play that could not have been prevented, no matter the precautions. 

But this statistic was repeated by multiple league sources outside the Warriors organization to NBCSports.com: 12 of 14. As in, Durant’s workload, playing 12 of the first 14 minutes of a Finals game after not playing a game in over a month due to a soft tissue injury.

Durant’s minutes stunned many across the league who expected Durant to play “short bursts,” as coach Steve Kerr said just before the game.

However, Durant played the first 6:11 of the game but did not remain on the bench for the rest of the quarter. Instead, he re-entered the game at the 3:33 mark and played the rest of the first quarter. He finished with 11 points, more than any player in the game not named Stephen Curry. 

Rather than sit Durant for the start of the second quarter and buy some extra time, Durant started the frame alongside three bench players and Klay Thompson. Draymond Green and Stephen Curry sat after playing the entire first quarter. And then, Durant’s leg buckled on a non-contact play.

“Just seems unacceptable,” said one longtime director of performance. “Doesn’t make any sense.”

Said another rival training staff member: “They may have said, once the leg is warm, ride it. But I can’t imagine (Durant) did enough work to determine 12 minutes out of 14 was appropriate.”

Did Kerr play Durant too much, too soon? Did they stick with Durant an extra few minutes because he was playing so well? 

These are reasonable questions, especially when the stakes are so high. Internally, some Warriors staffers felt that being second-guessed on this injury is fair in this industry; it’s impossible to have all the answers. 

Some insiders around the league feel that the Warriors’ medical staff has been overwhelmed by injuries this postseason. Durant, Curry (dislocated finger), Thompson (hamstring), Iguodala (calf), DeMarcus Cousins (quad) and Kevon Looney (chest/shoulder) have all suffered injuries during what is this team’s fifth Finals run. Many around the league see that as plain old bad luck. Others believe medical staffs shouldn’t be absolved from scrutiny while players, coaches, front offices and ownership groups are nationally and locally criticized on a regular basis.

As for the circumstances around the Durant injury, sources told NBCSports.com that the plan going into the game was to take Durant out when he felt tired. However, that didn’t happen as early as they expected going into the game. Durant hadn’t shown any signs of fatigue and, according to sources close to the situation, the decision to play more minutes was described as a collaborative one, agreed to by both Durant and the medical staff.

This medical staff is a new one by league standards. The Warriors have undergone significant changes to their medical staff in recent seasons, which is a bit unusual for a dynasty. Celebrini, a highly-regarded physiotherapist from MLS circles, replaced Chelsea Lane as the director of sports medicine last year. Lane left the Warriors last summer to lead the Atlanta Hawks' medical staff. Before Lane, the team parted ways with its former director of sports medicine, Lachlan Penfold, after just one season. Keke Lyles, who helped the Warriors with the 2015 NBA Finals as the team’s director of player performance, left that summer to join the Hawks in a similar position. 

That’s a lot of new faces. And a lot of winning, nonetheless.

But is the current medical staff at fault? Golden State general manager Bob Myers got out in front and pointed the finger at himself during an emotional impromptu postgame press conference.

“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand in this world and if you have to (blame someone), you can blame me,” said Myers fighting back tears. 

“He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person, it’s not fair. I’m lucky to know him. I don’t know -- I don’t have all the information on what really the extent of what it all means until we get a MRI, but the people that worked with him and cleared him are good people, they’re good people.”

Myers then reiterated that the initial injury suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against Houston was indeed a calf strain.

“This is not a calf injury,” Myers said. “I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how those are related or not, but it’s a different injury.”

You don’t have to have a medical degree to see how a calf strain and an Achilles injury to the same leg may be related. Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer and operator of injury tracker InStreetClothes.com, explained earlier this month why calf strains are so tricky.

“The calf is not an isolated muscle but a dynamic muscle complex,” Stotts wrote. “Playing through a strained calf can increase the chances of a secondary injury occurring somewhere else along the kinetic chain. The hamstring muscle group is particularly susceptible to injury when the calf is limited due to their synergistic relationship.”

In this case, Durant’s hamstring was fine; it was the Achilles that broke down. Multiple sources around the league have long believed that Durant’s initial injury in May was consistent with a partial Achilles tear, which would explain why Durant needed more than a month to get back onto the court. Mild calf strains usually take a week or two to return to play, not more than a month.

Durant’s timetable to return has been a moving target. After Game 3 against Portland on May 16, about a week after the initial injury, NBCSports Bay Area’s Monte Poole asked Kerr for his reaction to the news that Durant would be re-evaluated the following week. Kerr acknowledged that the team had underestimated the severity of the injury.

“It’s a little more serious than we thought at the very beginning,” Kerr said. “So we’ll see where it all goes. But he’s in there all day long getting treatment. He’s done a great job committing himself to that process. Rick (Celebrini) and his staff are in there all day. Hopefully, he’ll be back at some point.”

That point happened to arrive at an opportune time. Down 3-1, a loss away from the season ending, the Warriors announced that Durant would start Game 5 in Toronto just minutes before tipoff. 

The Warriors have been declarative throughout this process that this was not an Achilles injury. The injury suffered on Monday night is something new.

“It sucks, man,” Curry said after the game. “Not much else to say about it.”

Making matters more complicated was that Durant was absolutely sensational in his time on the floor. He showed almost no rust, scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes, making three 3-pointers and not even touching the rim on his field goal attempts and free throws in the first quarter. 

But those good feelings came to a crashing halt. Durant left the game with a five-point lead and Curry followed to the locker room, along with Andre Iguodala, the team trainer and Myers.

The team quickly rallied and jumped out to a 13-point lead with 6:05 remaining in the first half. Curry finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while Thompson scored 26 points of his own. Green was two assists short of notching a triple-double. Cousins did his part, scoring 14 points off the bench after not playing the first 14 minutes of the game, appearing out of the rotation before the Durant injury.

Before the game ended, Durant was seen leaving on crutches in a walking boot on his right leg. He posted on Instagram shortly after the game. 

“Dub nation gonna be loud as f*** for Game 6,” Durant posted late Monday night. “I’m hurting deep in the soul right now, I can’t lie, but seeing my brothers get this win was like taking a shot of tequila, I got new life lol. #dubs”

Durant can be a free agent this summer if he opts out of his contract. He holds a $31.5 million player option for next season, which becomes an intriguing option if he has indeed ruptured his Achilles. Though many speculated that Durant has already decided to leave the Warriors this offseason, there are three reasons why he might be inclined to return.

For one, the Warriors have just successfully rehabbed one superstar back from an Achilles tear in Cousins, who is contributing at the highest level of the game. Secondly, outside organizations would have to build Durant’s trust and medical information from scratch. In that sense, the Warriors are operating in a position of informational strength compared to teams outside the Bay. Lastly, exercising the player option and revisiting next summer may be the most stress-free option at his disposal.

Undoubtedly, if Durant misses next season with an Achilles tear, it would cause a seismic shift in free agency and the landscape of the league as a whole. Durant was considered by many to be the top free agent available this summer in a loaded free agency class potentially featuring Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and other stars.

Just as it was for Cousins, Durant’s rehabilitation from an Achilles injury will require attention to the smallest of details and tremendous mental strength. Weight loss is a strong positive indicator of rehab success from Achilles tears, but that will be tough in the case of Durant, who is as thin as they come in the NBA.

But for now, the Warriors fly back home to the Bay for Game 6 and wait for the MRI results scheduled for Tuesday. The Warriors organization is aching despite an incredible series-saving win on the road. They are fearing the worst as are medical sources around the league who watched from afar. But by rallying around Durant, the Warriors fought back to extend the series. 

“We’re going to give everything we got,” Curry said of Game 6.

The champs may be hurting, but they got new life. The entire NBA waits to see what happens now.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Winners and losers of the 2019 NBA Draft

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USA Today

Winners and losers of the 2019 NBA Draft

Welcome to the NBA, Zion Williamson. 

There weren’t too many fireworks on Thursday night in Brooklyn, but plenty of sparklers. By my count, only 10 of the final 41 picks weren’t traded. The biggest deal -- the Atlanta Hawks slid up to the Los Angeles Lakers’ No. 4 pick that was traded to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis package.

No All-Stars were traded on Thursday night, but there will be plenty of action come June 30. Here are the winners and losers from the 2019 NBA Draft.

Winners

New Orleans Pelicans

Holy smokes did Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin net a ton of value for dropping back to No. 8. In most years, trading out of the top five of the draft would be an incredibly risky move since draft value tends to fall off a cliff at the No. 6 pick. But this isn’t most years; we’ve been hearing for months that the 2019 draft projected to be unusually shallow after Williamson, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant. Griffin obviously felt that he could slide back four slots from No. 4 and still get the player he wanted, center Jaxson Hayes.

Using ESPN’s Kevin Pelton nifty draft pick point system to help put transactions like these in perspective, the Pelicans received 3,560 points in draft pick value (1,970 for No. 8; 1,220 for No. 17; 370 for No. 35) compared to 2,450 points going to Atlanta (2,440 for No. 4; 10 for No. 57). That’s a humongous gap in value. On top of that, the Pelicans shed Solomon Hill’s $13 million contract. On top of that, the Pelicans received Cleveland’s 2020 first-round pick, which will likely turn into a pair of second-rounders.

This was a heist by Griffin, who continues to run a clinic in his opening salvo. I’m not in love with the Hayes selection at No. 8. He’s a big pick-and-roll dunker in the Tyson Chandler mold, which is a great fit on most rosters. But the Pelicans need shooters around Williamson to amplify his athleticism and Hayes hasn’t shown any range outside the paint.

The good news is that Hayes has a really good stroke at the free throw line (74 percent last season at Texas), so he can maybe stretch out and develop a jumper. With that said, Lonzo Ball may shatter the lob record with Williamson and Hayes running at the rim. Sheesh.

By making the trade with Atlanta, the Pelicans have carved out about $30 million in cap space, which they can use to buy more picks down the line or bring in some shooting talent to free up more room for the kids. Don’t be surprised if Griffin brings in Jared Dudley, who spent four and a half seasons with Griffin in Phoenix, to help coach up the locker room and bring in a 3-and-D presence on the wing. 

Oh, and by the way, they drafted the best prospect since LeBron James.

Tissue Companies

The decision to add parents to the podium made living rooms and bars instantly become filled with dust. This is the most emotional night in the NBA calendar and it’s special for the fans at home to see players as human beings rather than draft picks. 

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers needed a 3-and-D rotation player and they just snagged the best defensive wing in the draft with the No. 20 pick in Matisse Thybulle. It’s amazing how undervalued defense is on draft night. Thybulle broke the defensive scale last season at Washington averaging 3.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game as the free safety in Washington’s zone defense. If there’s any center in the NBA who can own the rim enough to let others roam, it’s Joel Embiid.

He can be their Robert Covington. Thybulle has shot 36 percent on over 500 3-pointers in his collegiate career. He shot just 31 percent from downtown last season, but he’s better than what he showed there. At 22 years old, he can step in right away and contribute to an already elite defensive core with Ben Simmons and Embiid. 

Sixers fans might get nauseous at the idea of trading up with Boston to pick a Washington product, but this it the back end of the draft, not the front. Also, Thybulle’s presence allowed Philly to dump Jonathon Simmons’ contract on the Washington Wizards and save an extra $1 million for their free agency pursuits.

Atlanta Hawks

League Pass All-Stars. Adding De’Andre Hunter (No. 4 pick from New Orleans via Los Angeles via crazy lottery luck) and Cam Reddish (No. 10 via Dallas for Luka Doncic), the Hawks figure to be an exciting young squad that will be fascinating to watch next season.

With Trae Young and John Collins’ defensive limitations, I love that they targeted Hunter with the No. 4 pick. He may not have the box score stats of a defensive stalwart, but Hunter played in a Virginia defense that suppresses blocks and steals. The Hawks weren’t going to let another Malcolm Brogdon slip from their fingers with two of the best offensive young players in the NBA in Young and Collins. Reddish is a question mark, but at No. 10, that’s a worthy spot for his upside.

Knicks fans

It’s been a rough few weeks for the Knicks faithful. They lost the draft lottery. Their presumed top free agency target, Kevin Durant, tore his Achilles tendon. The Pelicans traded Anthony Davis elsewhere. Just when you thought the Knicks’ offseason couldn’t get any worse … wait, good news on draft night?!

Yes, the Knicks selected RJ Barrett with the No. 3 overall pick, a Knicks pick that was met with loud cheers for the first time … ever? I have my concerns about a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot 3s or at the line efficiently, but it was nice to hear Knicks fans be happy. They got their homegrown talent who seems genuinely thrilled to be a Knick. I sincerely hope he finds his jumper, because the NBA is better when its biggest market has something to root for.

Losers

Phoenix Suns 

I really don’t know what the Phoenix Suns are doing. First, they traded T.J. Warren and his remaining $35 million over three years into the Pacers’ cap space. Warren, 25 years old, is a big wing scorer who shot 43 percent from downtown last season, providing a really good insurance policy for Indiana free agent Bojan Bogdanovic. And you give him away along with the 32nd pick for cash considerations?

This is a deal you make if you’re a title contender looking to add a premiere free agent. But the Suns are going nowhere and they punted on Warren and got next to nothing. This is a new front office led by veteran GM Jeff Bower, but I’m not a fan of their start. Maybe they have D’Angelo Russell in their sights with their resulting cap space, but even then, I don’t love his fit next to Devin Booker. Deandre Ayton will have to be Bill Russell to clean up the backcourt’s mistakes.

And then they traded down from No. 6 for Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick, but reached for the oldest player in the draft, Cameron Johnson. Look, the UNC product is an elite shooter on the wing, but I worry about his age and hip issues. Bone impingement and a torn labrum is what has devastated Isaiah Thomas’ career, so hopefully he’s put those health issues behind him. Phoenix’s brass must’ve heard that Johnson was promised shortly after No. 11 because most intel had him projected to be a late first-rounder, at best. 

For a team that finished with the second-worst record in the NBA, this wasn’t much of a reward for their futility.

Hats

I kinda like the goofy hats atop the giant manes of the draftees, but we need to update the hat logos to reflect the teams they’re actually going to play for. Do we really need to put a Lakers hat on DeAndre Hunter after that pick was traded not once, but twice? Let’s bring the draft into 2019.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards were an awful defensive team last season, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and traded Otto Porter for two score-first-and-second players in Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. With interim GM Tommy Shephard steering the decisions for the club, I expected the Wizards to target a defensive presence at the No. 9 pick, someone like Brandon Clarke who reminds me a lot of Shawn Marion with his elite finishing ability and versatility on the defensive end. Clarke is only 6-foot-8 with a short wingspan, but he had the instincts and athleticism to block over three shots a game for Gonzaga. (I love him in Memphis next to Jaren Jackson Jr.)

Instead, the Wizards went with Clarke’s teammate at Gonzaga in Rui Hachimura, who fits the mold of a younger Parker. I like Hachimura’s scoring abilities around the rim, but this team needs more impact players on the defensive end and I think they missed out on Clarke. Getting Simmons from Philly makes some sense on the wing, but then again, coach Brett Brown, looking for defensive players on the wing, didn’t trust him much at all in the playoffs. Admiral Schofield is a solid flier in the second round with the 42nd pick they netted from the Sixers, but that’s a steep price with cash considerations going to Philly. Again, where is the defense going to come from for this team? The good news is Bradley Beal is still a Wizard. No desperate moves from Washington. 

Boston Celtics

It really seems like the Celtics have given up on the 2019-20 season already. By trading Aron Baynes to Phoenix and not moving up in the draft with their bevy of picks, the Celtics have essentially reverted back to the team that rallied to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals without Kyrie Irving.

But that team had Al Horford, who is an essential part to everything that they do. They’ll need Horford to compete next season, but right now, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Robert Williams will be their starting frontcourt next season. I’m not high on Romeo Langford (No. 14), but I love the Grant Williams pick at No. 24. (Jaylen Brown and Williams, the son of a NASA engineer, should stream weekly Academic Bowls.)

No one outside New England is feeling sorry for this team. But between Danny Ainge’s health scare and the surprising exodus out of Boston, this has been a sad chapter for the franchise. 

Look, they might make a run for Kemba Walker, who went to UConn just 85 miles down the road, but the comments out of the team on Thursday night suggest this will be a rebuild. Just a year ago, the Celtics held one of the brightest futures in the league. Now, they’re a cautionary tale.

Bol Bol

No one wants to be the guy that lingers in the green room on draft night, but I’m happy he landed in Denver. For the second year in a row, the Nuggets take a rehab flier on a top prospect. Last year it was Michael Porter Jr., who was the 14th pick dealing with back issues. He had a redshirt season in Denver, which might be the outcome for Bol in 2019-20 while he rehabs from a broken foot.

Bol is more than worth the flier. The son of the late NBA legend Manute, Bol is a 7-foot-2 shooter with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and has some real NBA-caliber skill. I am stunned he fell all the way out of the first round, even with the foot injury. He’s a top-10 talent. Good for the Nuggets to take a chance on Bol.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

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USA Today

Mike Conley trade another sign of teams jockeying for West crown

With the Utah Jazz trading for star point guard Mike Conley, the jockeying to take Golden State’s crown in the Western Conference continues.

Days after Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered major leg injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers traded the farm for Anthony Davis. Earlier this week, troubling reports out of Houston point to a feuding power struggle between James Harden and Chris Paul. It’s no coincidence that the 50-win Jazz team decided to swing now for Conley, a top scoring point guard that fills a void on the roster. 

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick to come out of the West next season, I wouldn’t blame you for picking the Jazz. At 18-7 with a plus-9.5 net rating, they were the second-best team in the NBA after the All-Star break before they fell apart against the Rockets in the first round. 

Teams like the Jazz don’t have the Hollywood glamour or the big-city market to draw star free agents so a trade like this makes a ton of sense. Though Conley isn’t near the caliber of Kawhi Leonard, this trade shares the same philosophy as the Raptors moving on from DeMar DeRozan: a 50-win team needs two-way stars to reach that championship-caliber level.

The Jazz clearly needed a second shot creator alongside Donovan Mitchell after the 22-year-old shot 32.1 percent from the floor and 25.6 percent from deep on the playoff stage. Mitchell had a breakout rookie season, but there were worries about how Mitchell would fare after the scouting report came out on him as a No. 1 scorer. He didn’t quell those concerns against Houston.

Conley to the rescue. The Jazz are getting an upgrade over unrestricted free agent Ricky Rubio, who remains a really effective point guard despite his reputation as a one-dimensional playmaker. Rubio’s just not effective in the ways that Conley is at this stage. In Conley’s age-31 season, he had his best scoring campaign of his impressive career. He averaged a personal-best 21.1 points per game with solid efficiency despite being the first, second and third option on the young Memphis team. 

Conley joins a stout defensive team with Rudy Gobert manning the backline. The Jazz are good bets to remain one of the best defensive outfits in the league next season, something that we can’t say about West contenders like Houston and the Lakers. That’s a foundation worth banking on.

Of course, the Jazz didn’t get Conley for free. The Grizzlies received Kyle Korver, Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen as well as this year’s 23rd pick and a future first-rounder, which figures to be in the late twenties. You might quibble with giving up two first-round picks for Conley, but the team risked losing the Indianapolis product to the Pacers, who are in the same boat as the Jazz -- a good team looking to be great.

Still, I love the deal from the Utah standpoint. With Golden State taking a step back, the Western Conference is as open as ever. It’s why Rockets GM Daryl Morey has fire hoses for arms these days trying to put out the flames of a Harden-Paul feud both internally and publicly. If the Rockets can keep things in order, they have as good a chance as anybody getting to the NBA Finals. 

There is a LeBron James factor in this Utah deal. It’s expected that Korver, a 38-year-old joining a rebuilding roster, will be waived upon his arrival in Memphis. The Lakers desperately need shooters (and bodies) and Korver has already chased a title with James. He struggled to stay on the floor in the playoffs against a physical Rockets team, but James and Davis would make things much easier on him on both ends.

With a newly-minted big three of Conley, Mitchell and Gobert, we safely can label the Jazz as legitimate West contenders. But be sure to use pencil. Thursday’s draft and the upcoming free agency sweepstakes will alter the landscape yet again. 

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.