The rising star of his time-the clear heir to the “best player in the NBA” title-hobbles into free agency with massive stakes, multiple teams chasing him and a conspicuous walking boot on his injured leg.
Kevin Durant in 2019? Yes. But the same thing happened to a previous heir to the throne nearly two decades ago: Grant Hill in 2000.
If you’re looking for insight and precedent for how Durant’s ruptured Achilles tendon might change his free-agent fortunes, look no further than Hill.
In Hill’s case, the answer was “not one bit.”
That will also be the case for Durant, multiple executives within the league told Bleacher Report.
“I don’t think it’s going to change one thing,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Some teams have been setting themselves up for this and preparing for Durant to choose them, and I think those teams are too deep into it now. I don’t think they can turn back.”
With the pop seen ’round the basketball universe in Game 5 of the Finals on Monday night-Durant’s Achilles tendon shooting up his leg like a rubber band, ending his season and perhaps his next one, too-the speculation immediately turned to what it would mean for his impending free agency. Durant announced Wednesday on Instagram that he underwent surgery to repair the rupture.
“I’m hurting deeply, but I’m OK,” Durant wrote. “Basketball is my biggest love, and I wanted to be out there that night because that’s what I do. I wanted to help my teammates on our quest for the three peat.”
The Warriors later confirmed that Durant suffered an Achilles rupture and had surgery in New York. The repercussions-from the Bay Area to the Big Apple-were enormous.
Would Durant exercise his $31.5 million player option for next season? Would the Warriors pony up a max contract (five years, $221.3 million) for an all-time great who will play only four of those seasons at best and will be on the other side of 33 for the final two years of the deal?
As for the teams that are the leaders in the clubhouse to lure Durant away from the Bay Area-the Knicks, Nets and Clippers, according to multiple league sources-might they have less of an appetite to offer him a four-year, $164 million max deal?
Three executives polled by B/R answered with a resounding “no,” echoing a report from ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks, who said Tuesday that three teams he spoke with indicated they’d still offer an injured Durant a max deal if they had cap room, even if he might not play at all in 2019-20.
But you don’t have to rely on speculation. Just refer to history.
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Breaking: KD confirms he’s torn his Achilles: “Surgery was today and it was a success, EASY MONEY” (via @KDTrey5) https://t.co/6hkUsRNSbr
Hill, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, was going on 28 years old and was at the height of his formidable powers late in the 1999-2000 season with the Detroit Pistons. Just as Durant appeared poised to eventually surpass 34-year-old LeBron James as the best player on the planet, Hill was hot on the heels of Michael Jordan at the time.
It’s easy to forget, but there was nothing that Hill couldn’t do on the court…except, of course, stay on it.
Unlike the quick, catastrophic nature of Durant’s injury, Hill went down innocently enough during the second quarter of a regular-season game late in the season against the 76ers in Philadelphia.
From where I sat-courtside, reporting for the Associated Press-it looked like your garden-variety ankle sprain.
“I was hindering the team,” Hill said that night, his swollen left foot soaking in an ice bucket. “I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t put any pressure on it.”
Hill tried to contribute in two playoff losses to Miami, but he had nothing to give.
It turned out that Hill had suffered a bone bruise and fractures, and he underwent what would be the first of numerous operations on that left ankle. It was the beginning of a litany of injuries, re-injuries and surgeries that derailed what otherwise could have gone down as one of the transcendent careers in NBA history.
The Pistons wanted to retain him as a free agent. (Hill did not have a player option that year.) Hill also had three teams chasing him: the Knicks, Suns and Magic.
Despite the fact that Hill was relegated to a walking boot while conducting his free-agent visits, the Pistons offered him the max, according to a person familiar with the situation. So did all three teams that were courting him, the person said.
“He was not going to be healthy to play for a long time,” the person said. “I realize it was a long time ago, but it really did not impact any of the teams.”
Nor should we expect it to affect any of the teams chasing Durant, who is a far cry from the best player on the planet at the moment.
“The teams that are interested would still be desperate enough and take their chances,” a longtime Eastern Conference executive said. “Take a team like New York. They’ve had so much misery, I think that they would do it either way.”
The other team in New York, the Nets, recently traded away two first-round picks to unload the final year and $18.5 million left on Allen Crabbe’s contract in a deal with the Hawks that cleared enough cap room for two max-level free agents this summer.
“It’s going to be the same offer,” the Eastern Conference executive said. “You live with the injury and live with rehabbing for however long it might be, and hope he comes back being 100 percent.”
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Whether the Knicks, Nets and Clippers all feel the same way is irrelevant. All it takes is one potential suitor that is willing to pony up the max, and Durant’s decision about opting in or out will be all but made for him.
“If the max offers are there, there’s no way he opts into that [$31.5 million player option],” a Western Conference executive said.
There’s one wrinkle that won’t affect the basketball-operations calculation about whether to offer Durant the max or not, but could affect things at an ownership level. One of the executives who spoke with B/R pointed out that whichever team signs Durant will have to accept the risk that the deal may not be fully protected by insurance. Since Durant would be entering into the contract with a pre-existing condition-a catastrophic Achilles injury from which few players have ever come back as good or better than they were before-insurance protection on the deal will likely be limited.
“That’s an ownership decision that has to be looked at,” the executive said.
Hill ended up getting sign-and-traded to Orlando with a seven-year, $93 million contract, which was massive at the time.
“It turned out to be a tough decision for Orlando to live with,” the Eastern Conference executive said.
Indeed. Hill was able to play only 47 games in his first four seasons in Orlando, and he missed the entire 2003-04 season. Athough he didn’t retire until 2013 at the age of 40, he was never the same player.
There were benefits to the deal. With Hill in the fold, the Magic were able to lure Tracy McGrady that same summer, ushering in an era of modest playoff relevance, though that fizzled a few years later when McGrady asked for a trade to the Rockets.
That isn’t an easy opportunity for a team desperate for competent basketball, like the Knicks, or fighting for respect in their own city, like the Nets and Clippers, to turn down.
Especially for someone like Durant, a generational talent with an MVP on his resume and a long history of taking teams deep into the playoffs and Finals. Opportunities to nab someone like that are rare, and with the doors that would open to adding other stars, visions of championship parades are not hard to conjure.
Even if you have to squint to block out the image of the walking boot.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.
Sam Amick, NBA Insider for The Athletic, joins Howard Beck to discuss this year’s wild NBA Finals, Kevin Durant’s future and where Anthony Davis is likely to be playing on opening night next season. All that and more on The Full 48.