The NBA Finals took another twist and turn during Game 5 with the return and fall of Kevin Durant. In a span of a quarter and change, the NBA got reacquainted with a powerhouse before experiencing the shock of losing one of the best players of this era to a catastrophic injury. On a human level, it’s sad to see someone experiencing such a traumatic injury after spending so much time and effort in trying to return to the highest stage. As an NBA fan, it’s disappointing to lose an all-time great, in his prime, to an injury that will no doubt change his career trajectory and the NBA.
The reverberations of Durant’s injury go beyond just the player, however. Let’s dive into a few of them.
The Weirdness of this NBA Finals
Why is this year’s NBA Finals so strange to me? I keep asking myself this question as I watch every game. For almost a decade, the conversation around the NBA Finals revolved around LeBron James, a yearly discussion about redefining his legacy. For the first time in 9 years, we didn’t have that. The Eastern Conference vacuum got filled by multiple contenders and ultimately left us with a Kawhi-led Raptors challenging for the crown. The historic postseason Kawhi Leonard has put together has been breathtaking, from Jordan-esque takeovers to a... (sigh)... ‘quadruple doink’ series-ender. Yet, despite having the whole country of Canada in his mighty Klaw, Leonard is still a free agent this summer with eyes on LA. Kyle Lowry’s redemption, Pascal Siakam’s rise, Fred VanVleet’s baby imbuing him with superpowers... All of this have felt like small potatoes over the past week.
Instead, the story around this Finals became more about the Golden State Warriors, the dynasty that thwarted LeBron. Are we seeing the end of that dynasty? Age, injuries and depth have finally caught up with Golden State. It’s really hard to win in the NBA and even harder to sustain that excellence. Five straight Finals trips means an additional season worth of games (which puts into perspective how ridiculous LeBron is/was). The inevitably of it was always there but never felt real until now.
The talk about the Warriors without Durant being better than with him was always insane, but we’ve finally seen it play out to put it to rest. For 12 brief minutes, we saw how a healthy Warriors team completely changes the outlook of the series. Would it have even been a series with a healthy Durant? Yet, here we are, hours before the Warriors either take this to Game 7 or the Raptors notch their first championship.
So maybe that’s why this NBA finals has been so weird as it’s been more about the conversation around the game than the game itself. Game 5 was probably the most entertaining of the 5 contests yet the biggest story coming out of it was Durant’s injury. Maybe, the conversation shifts if this goes the distance or if the Warriors pull off the 3-1 come back?
The Injury Blame Game
For the past few days, Kevin Durant’s Achilles rupture became THE topic of conversation. The unfortunate injury will no doubt keep him out for the next season entirely with questions as to what player will return for the 2020-2021 season. In the immediate aftermath of his injury, there were questions as to who was to “blame”. Warriors’ GM Bob Meyers emotionally delivered the bad news after Game 5 and said he would take on the burden of the blame, if needed.
I think everyone and no one is to blame. How?
Everyone has their own interests in this situation from the owner to the players. Viewed through a cynical lens, Meyers statement was purely to garner sympathy rather than responsibility. I do not pretend to know the true relationship among all the parties, but falling on the sword as the President of Basketball Ops seems empty.
Truly, the Warriors have to share that blame as it was their internal pressure that only added to the fire. For the first time since LeBron conquered them, the Warriors are desperate. The confidence, border-line arrogance is what has helped them build their resilience, mystique, and dominance. Even after Durant initially went down a month ago, the Warriors continued their onslaught overcoming Houston and dusting Portland. However, against Toronto, they finally found resistance. With injuries mounting and their mortality finally on display, asking their best players to endure to survive is natural. However, the best interests of the team is not necessarily the best interests of the individual. In team sports, and in life, the best advocate for an individual is themselves.
For that reason, Durant is not without blame here either. Durant has his own autonomy in this situation and could have chosen to err on the side of caution, regardless. Over the years, he’s built up a reputation of caring too much about what others think about him. Durant was already known for his Burners before the Colangelo Clan became the poster child last year. So external pressure wouldn’t be new for a guy trying to build his legacy as the ‘Best Player in the World’.
However, serendipity and misfortune are opposite sides of the same coin. Durant is athlete at the top of his craft, with the chance to play for the highest honor. We all take risks in our careers, so why blame him for doing the same? Likewise, in a team sport where the collective sacrifice for the greater good, why blame the team and organization for wanting their best player to play? It’s unfortunate that it happened, and I’m sure all parties feel horrible. Without truly knowing the medical history, we’ll never know risk-reward calculus. All we knew was that the Warriors were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and adding Kevin Durant could possibly have changed that.
A simple hard cut changed the NBA, just like... (sigh)... the ‘quadruple doink’.
The “Ticking Time Bomb”
There’s a lesson here about player health and managing player and team interests. Though, I don’t know if that lesson will really carry over into similar high leverage situations in the future. While Kawhi Leonard, his advocates and Toronto have laid out a blueprint on how to serve in the best interests of all parties, we’ll have to see if this type of symbiosis will survive past a contract year or in a situation similar to Durant (which I truly hope doesn’t happen).
Furthermore, if we bring this back to Philadelphia, we saw the pitfall of the over-reliance on Joel Embiid this season. Both Joel and the 76ers had to learn the hard way that getting through an 82 game season isn’t just a matter of playing through it, but surviving it. As prideful as he is, it seemed as though Embiid recognized the importance of “load management” by the end. Hopefully, for the benefit of both Embiid and the 76ers, they strictly follow that strategy in the future.
Something I do worry about is how almost everyone refers to Joel Embiid as a “Ticking Time Bomb”. There is no doubt that there should be careful considerations regarding a large athlete with history of lower limb and back issues. However, where does that line of consideration shift into a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Do the 76ers drive their decision-making based on the expectation that Embiid has an apparent ticking-clock or is their decision-making actually creating the situation that the clock is ticking? While we have a cautionary tale and a blueprint, that is a question we’ll have to revisit every step of the way.
Who: Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors
When: 9:00 pm EST
Where: Oracle Arena
Listen: ESPN Radio