OAKLAND, Calif. — As the unfortunate circumstances regarding Kevin Durant’s Achilles’ tendon injury sink in and sting even more Tuesday, the story line shifts to the repercussions that will affect his free agency, the immediate future of the NBA, and, yes, the Celtics.
In a summer free agent market overflowing with premium players, Durant was the most coveted and his future the most discussed because of how it could alter the power base of the league.
The New York Knicks, for years a downtrodden organization, considered Durant a potential centerpiece for their rebuild and franchise renaissance. The Los Angeles Clippers, long seeking an NBA championship with their wealthy owner willing to spend luxury-tax dollars to field an elite team, also were going to pursue Durant.
There also were teams such as the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, with enough cap space to sign Durant, expected to make offers. The Lakers are looking for another superstar to pair with LeBron James, while the Nets just cleared enough salary-cap space for two maximum-contract players.
And while Kyrie Irving had major issues with the viral video of him and Durant talking to each other just minutes before they took the floor at the All-Star Game in February — with Irving forcefully talking to Durant — there is no doubt the two had discussed playing together.
According to NBA sources, Irving is intrigued by the possibility of playing for the Nets, who are interested in him. Though their chances of landing Durant seem unlikely, the Nets could make an offer to bring both in as free agents.
Durant had his choice of teams for which to play, including the Warriors, in two different contract options.
The first was a maximum free agent contract offer, which was expected before the injury. The second, and now perhaps an emerging possibility, is that Durant would opt in to the final year of his contract at $31.5 million (the Celtics’ Al Horford has the same option) and then try free agency next year when he’s recovered from his injury.
If Durant has a torn Achilles’, it could cost him 10 months to a year, and there is a distinct possibility that his rehabilitation will be a grueling process, considering the seriousness of the injury and how he was injured Tuesday when his calf area was not 100 percent.
Whichever team decides to sign Durant now knows he’s likely to miss next season. That is a difficult blow for the Knicks, who wanted to pair two maximum free agents — perhaps Irving and Durant — and become a contender immediately.
Now, if the Knicks invest a max salary in Durant, it more than likely will be for the 2020-21 season and beyond. And if he signed a four-year deal with a player option in the fourth year, the Knicks could get only two years of a healthy Durant if he decided to opt out.
The Knicks, who also missed out on getting likely No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson when they dropped to third in the draft lottery, were banking that Durant would help them become significant again. New York hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2013.
As for the Celtics, they are going to make Irving a maximum offer, and perhaps their case gets stronger with Irving knowing that Durant is either 1. not going to be healthy for at least a year and 2. perhaps considering returning to Golden State. If Irving knows the chances of playing with Durant are remote, maybe he considers staying in Boston, where the chances of winning are higher than in New York.
As for Brooklyn, the question is whether the Nets would be interested in bringing in Irving (which means they would likely renounce All-Star D’Angelo Russell) and Long Island native Tobias Harris, who is also being pursued by the 76ers.
Would the Nets want Irving as their free agent centerpiece without Durant or would they just choose to re-sign Russell, a restricted free agent who is four years younger than Irving, and pursue a much-needed small forward?
Durant’s injury completely changes the potential of a Durant-Irving free agent package, perhaps leaving Irving on an island to sign with a team by himself. Also, Irving’s reputation and perception as a franchise cornerstone took a considerable hit with his playoff performance and the Celtics’ tumultuous season, meaning there could be teams who don’t want him without another max player.
Another repercussion concerns the timeline for star players returning from injuries. Former Celtic Isaiah Thomas played on a bad hip until he couldn’t play anymore, and that cost him millions in free agency.
Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard was cleared to play by Spurs doctors but refused because he wasn’t 100 percent and wanted out of San Antonio because of the team’s disbelief. He played just 60 games this season because of rest but has been healthy throughout the Raptors’ playoff run.
And now Durant comes back from a 33-day absence with a calf strain and hurts his Achilles’ tendon 12 minutes into his return.
It’s a guarantee that other superstars are looking at these developments and promising they won’t return from injuries until they are fully healthy.
While players are lauded for playing at less than 100 percent, that usually doesn’t result in lucrative paydays when the player is considered damaged goods, like Thomas, who has yet to regain his prowess following hip surgery.
There was pressure for Durant to get back on the floor and help his team try to win a third title in four years. If he sits out the Finals, his toughness and desire are questioned. He came back and then suffered an even worse injury. Fans are now sympathetic, but the damage to Durant has been done.
And the repercussions are major.