One of the main storylines to follow this NBA season involves the health of two of the game’s biggest superstars: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Durant is coming off an injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign that included three surgeries to repair a fracture in his right foot, while James is soldiering through a back issue that forced him to miss most of the preseason. Nearly a week into the new year, the respective injuries haven’t hugely affected either player’s on-court production:
Durant is coming off a 54-minute performance against the Orlando Magic in which he put up a ridiculous 43 points and 12 boards in the undefeated Oklahoma City Thunder’s double-overtime win, while James is powering a short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers team to a 2-1 record with back-to-back quality victories over the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.
However, given the potential severity of both ailments as well as the huge workloads Durant and James have endured in the past, it’s only fair to wonder if either player can make it to the finish line without breaking down.
So, which injury is the bigger concern: KD’s thrice surgically-repaired foot or King James’s still-unknown back troubles?
Durant shocked the basketball world prior to the start of last season when it was revealed he would need surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot. After all, Durant missed just 16 games in his previous seven seasons combined and was following up an MVP campaign in 2013-14. After missing the Thunder’s first 17 games, Durant returned to the court on December 2. While there were times he’d flash his elite form, chronic pain in his foot as well as other lower-leg injuries kept him in and out of the lineup. By mid-February, KD was shut down for the season. Durant played in just 27 contests, but still managed to put up a typical KD stat line: 25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 51 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent from three. In late March, he underwent a bone-grafting procedure to hopefully alleviate any future problems with his foot.
The good news is that, according to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Norman Waldrop, the bone graft should help Durant finally put his foot woes behind him.
“Over 90 percent will go on to be fully competitive and free of complications for the remainder of their playing careers.” Waldrop said.
The bad news is two-fold. First, there’s that 10 percent window that a re-injury can occur. While those are relatively low odds, Durant’s athleticism and constant movement around the court make him a different case than other traditional big men who underwent the procedure such as the Brooklyn Nets’ Brook Lopez.
Second, while only two games into the season, Durant leads the league with 44 minutes per game, largely because of his nearly hour-long outing against the Magic. Even though there’s still plenty of season left to pull back the reins, the Thunder are taking a huge gamble by giving heavy playing time to someone not that far removed from his third foot surgery in less than a year. Given what Durant’s presence means to OKC’s title hopes, his workload will be worth monitoring going forward.
Back problems are nothing new for LeBron James. He’s been dealing with them since he was a 21-year-old entering the playoffs for the first time in 2006, and they’ve followed him going into this season, when he received an injection in mid-October and was kept out of the rest of exhibition. As it turned out, the injection was James’s second in less than a year after receiving a similar one in January. After receiving the shot and sitting for two weeks to rest, James performed without issue the rest of the season, including almost single-handedly defeating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Still, there’s a different feel this time around.
The four-time MVP will turn 31 in late December and is in the midst of his 13th season in the NBA. In the previous 12 seasons, only his first two didn’t include a trip to the postseason. Of those 10 playoff trips, six ended in the Finals with another ending in the conference finals. If the Cavs live up to their potential, they’re the favorite to represent the East once again in the Finals, which would be James’s sixth straight appearance. Including this season, he’s logged 43,431 minutes between the regular season and playoffs during his career.
Beyond the heavy workload, there’s the physical signs that are cause for concern. After telling reporters he “felt good” prior to Cleveland’s season opener against the Bulls, James was seen laying flat on the sideline throughout the game in an attempt to alleviate pressure on his ailing back. It’s a position we’ve seen in the past from players like Larry Bird and Steve Nash, who were hindered later in their respective careers by — wait for it — back issues. There were also reports of James lacking explosiveness on some plays, including on the game’s final play when he was blocked at the rim by 35-year-old Pau Gasol:
James followed up that performance with a 12-point outing against the Grizzlies the next night. Despite questions about his health, he remains defiant and determined to play every game this season. James’s insistence on playing all 82 contests is a bit troubling because the Cavaliers aren’t playing for the regular season. As long as this team is healthy and one of the East’s top eight teams, they’re the conference’s team to beat. Still, head coach David Blatt faces an ongoing struggle with James similar to the one Thunder coach Billy Donovan will endure with Durant: deciding when to trot out an ailing player who’s so crucial to the franchise’s success.
The uncertainty surrounding James’s back as well as back injuries in general make his ordeal the more concerning of the two. Additionally, James’s numbers (while still solid) are well below his career averages (27.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists) on top of being his worst statistical performance since being a 19-year-old rookie in 2003-04 (20.9/5.5/5.9). Yes, we’re only three games in and there’s plenty of time for James to recover, but the King routinely downplaying the potential consequences of toughing it out will only make matters worse.
Like Durant and his foot last season, there are plenty of stories of NBA players whose careers succumbed to back troubles (Bird, Nash, Larry Johnson, to name a few). James will have nights where his otherworldly talents will shine through, but so did Durant last season.
Inevitably, the pain became too much for KD. Will we be saying the same thing about LeBron?