While the news that Kevin Durant needs bone graft surgery and won't play basketball is depressing for anyone who cares about pro basketball, it isn't the worst possible development. Durant attempting a heroic court comeback this season to push the Oklahoma City Thunder into the playoffs could have been a short-term inspiring story with hazardous long-term implications for both his feet and his footsteps. Yeah, that would be much worse.
It's another sign that the league is swinging from the legend of Michael Jordan to the lessons of Grant Hill. It's been a process four decades in the making, from the glorification of Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel for Game 7 to the appreciation for the way managed minutes and strategic sit-outs enabled Tim Duncan to be in position to win another championship at age 38. Maybe it's accelerated recently, if you compare the angst for Derrick Rose to come back in the 2013 playoffs to the patience afforded him after this latest knee surgery.
That was the backdrop -- or cushion, really -- for Friday's announcement that Durant would be out for four to six months. It doesn't seem so unfathomable. If the Jones fracture in his right foot hadn't healed sufficiently after five months and two surgeries that inserted two different screws, there was no point in him trying to return for any of the Thunder's 10 remaining games before the playoffs. There's no questioning Durant's manhood or desire to play. If anything, his durability and love of the game might have brought him to this point.
In his previous seven seasons, Durant played 80 or more games five times and played in all 66 games of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign (after popping up in YouTube clips of rec league and pickup games throughout that extended offseason). He's among the top 35 in playoff games among active players even though he's only 26 years old. Throw in an Olympics, a FIBA Basketball World Cup and two other USA Basketball training camps that ate up his summers. Durant shutting it down after playing 27 games this season reflects the seriousness of the injury, not the fragility of his constitution.
So there won't be a repeat of Jordan's comeback in 1986, when he defied Chicago Bulls management by rushing back from a broken foot to finish the season and scored 63 points in a playoff game against the Boston Celtics. But there also won't be a rerun of the 2000 playoffs, in which a gimpy Hill played on a broken ankle and worsened it so much that the bone looked like sliced fruit in the X-rays.
Nor will there be any pressure to return or daily "will he or won't he?" stories as Rose experienced.
Durant is said to be relieved that his meetings with three foot specialists produced answers and a new recovery plan. The word I heard repeatedly was "clarity."
The primary question now is, Will the more cautious approach actually make it better for Durant? Hearing about foot problems with tall players immediately summons the bad memories of Bill Walton and Yao Ming, whose careers were reduced and prematurely ended, respectively, by foot injuries. The 6-foot-10 Durant doesn't carry as much weight as those two centers, but he does move faster and more often, in addition to cutting harder.
When Nike tested him while developing his signature shoe line, it discovered that he put stress on his feet akin to what guards do -- only in his case while wearing size 18s. That's why I'm reluctant to cite precedent for his type of injury. Different bodies can react to the same injuries in different ways. There are different skill levels among surgeons. And Durant is such a unique player.
He's so unique that people around the NBA still expect him to command a max contract as a free agent in 2016, even if he hasn't thoroughly put his foot issues behind him by then. Don't forget,: Gilbert Arenas and Amar'e Stoudemire both received $100 million contracts after they severely damaged their knees. What seems like a bigger gamble: spending money in the hope that Durant is still the Durant we've seen before, or continually trading players and dropping to the bottom of the standings in the hopes of winning the lottery and landing the next Durant that we have yet to see?
As for Durant, even if he never plays again he'll still be wealthy thanks to the Nike contract he signed last summer that's worth upwards of a quarter-billion dollars. And, yes, the shoes are still coming; the KD 8 drops in July, just like the Kobe Bryant shoes keep coming even though he's played in only 41 games the past two seasons.
So let Durant profit from Jordan and learn from Hill. This isn't about branding. It's about keeping his primary job for years to come. The Thunder are thinking long term as well, realizing there's no point in rushing Durant back to try to win a championship this season and make a bullet point in their retention pitch if the choices it leaves them are either damaged goods or a bitter player who feels used. It's another step away from the notion that players should always play regardless of the risks or toll. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of the players-turned-coach who complain about today's athletes not suiting up for 82 games a season are the same guys getting their hips and knees replaced. Do you think their worn-down joints could have used a few more nights off? Just because it was different back in the day doesn't mean it was better.
Besides, lost amid Jordan's lore are two facts about that 63-point game in Boston: the Bulls lost that game and were swept in the series.