Opinion: Kevin Durant’s injury should serve as cautionary tale for athletes everywhere

OAKLAND — Since there’s so much we don’t know about the human body, athletic performance and the nature of injuries, let’s start with the most basic fact that there were two teams, two superstars and two very different paths to the NBA Finals. 

In one corner there’s Kawhi Leonard, who didn’t accept the medical prognosis of his former team, ignored the noise when fans, media and some even within his own locker room suggested he should be playing and came back with a new team that allowed him to play a conservative 60-game regular season schedule to preserve his health for the playoffs. 

In another corner there’s Kevin Durant, who averaged nearly 35 minutes over 78 games in the regular season and played more than 40 minutes in six consecutive playoff games before his calf injury and subsequent comeback attempt Monday night that has become the biggest flashpoint of the NBA Finals. 

Kevin Durant sits on the court after suffering an Achilles injury. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

MORE COLUMNS: Read more commentary from USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken

It’s certainly possible that one plus one doesn’t equal two here. No two bodies are alike, no two injuries are the same, and there are always additional factors and circumstances that will drive a professional athlete’s decision to put their body on the line.

But there are lessons we need to learn from what happened in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. 

We can’t just write it off as bad luck that Durant hurried back after a month off, played on a calf injury that hadn’t fully healed, looked really good playing 12 of the first 14 minutes of the game and then made a sudden move on his right leg that resulted in damage to his Achilles — an injury that will likely rob the 30-year old Durant of one of the last remaining prime years of his career. 

Though Golden State president of basketball operations Bob Myers tearfully came into a postgame news conference suggesting there was no one to blame — essentially, sometimes bad stuff happens in sports — that’s a cop out.

Durant didn’t break his arm or suffer a concussion or even tear up his knee. During a non-contact play where was simply trying to get by Serge Ibaka, he injured his Achilles, which is connected to the muscle that he injured previously and wasn’t healthy enough for him to play 72 hours earlier. 

Golden State’s medical personnel surely believed Durant playing wouldn’t put him at risk of further injury, and Durant ultimately made the decision to play in Game 5 because he’s an elite competitor who trusted those who likely told him that dropping into the NBA Finals off one practice wouldn’t put his career in jeopardy. 

But all medical advice isn’t equal. Doctors can miss things. And assessing risk when you’re talking about a complex network of muscles, joints and tissue seems like more art than science.

If the Golden State organization isn’t immediately undergoing a top-to-bottom assessment of what went wrong, whether mistakes were made by its medical staff and whether there was an error somewhere along the line — including by coach Steve Kerr, who didn’t exactly ease Durant back into the lineup — they’re in complete denial of their responsibility to the health of their players. 

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