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San Antonio Spurs: Rudy Gay and the NBA’s history of Achilles injuries

By Rob Wolkenbrod
SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 15: Rudy Gay
SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 15: Rudy Gay
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San Antonio Spurs, SACRAMENTO, CA – JANUARY 15: Rudy Gay
San Antonio Spurs, SACRAMENTO, CA – JANUARY 15: Rudy Gay

The San Antonio Spurs are taking a risk on Rudy Gay after he ruptured his Achilles in January. What’s the history like for players coming off this kind of injury?

The San Antonio Spurs signed Rudy Gay in the first few days of the NBA offseason, giving him a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He performed as a consistent scorer for three teams over 11 seasons, never making an All-Star team but providing 17-plus points per game.

However, the Spurs are taking on a player that ruptured his Achilles in January, which ended Gay’s season prematurely. It’s a dangerous injury for NBA players, one they’ve historically struggled to return from.

There were seven significant names to suffer Achilles tendon ruptures. How did they perform after returning from the injury?

CLEVELAND – MARCH 6: Christian Laettner
CLEVELAND – MARCH 6: Christian Laettner

7. Christian Laettner

Christian Laettner was one of the most hated players in college basketball at Duke. If anything, this status still stands among the history of college basketball.

However, Laettner had a successful NBA career. He lasted from 1992-2005, playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Miami Heat. For the first half, it saw Laettner become a consistent scorer in the NBA, averaging at least 16 points per game in his first five seasons.

During the 1998 offseason, Laettner tore his Achilles in a pickup basketball game. It led to him playing just 16 games in the 1998-99 season, which was the start of a downfall for his NBA career.

Laettner struggled to return to form for the rest of his career. He only averaged double-digit points once for the rest of his career, but still managed to keep rebound and shot percentage statistics in tact. It was enough to be an above-average role player on the Mavericks and Wizards, though.

Laettner is still remembered for having a solid NBA career, something that had the chance to be better if not for the Achilles injury that changed him at age 29. There were even higher profile names before and after him, however.

Next: Mehmet Okur

DENVER, CO – APRIL 17 : Mehmet Okur
DENVER, CO – APRIL 17 : Mehmet Okur

6. Mehmet Okur

After a promising two-year stint with the Detroit Pistons, Mehmet Okur joined the Utah Jazz in 2004. He wasn’t a prototypical center for that era of the NBA, being more of a stretch four at 6-foot-11. This included averaging 37 percent from beyond the arc through 10 NBA seasons.

At age 31, Okur’s career spiraled downward. He ruptured his Achilles in the 2010 playoffs, basically ending his run in the league.

In the 2010-11 season, Okur returned for 13 games but shot just 35 percent from the field. He then got traded in the 2011 offseason (December 2011, due to the strike-shortened season) to the New Jersey Nets, played in 17 games and became a trade chip in the Gerald Wallace deal with the Portland Trail Blazers. This eventually brought Damian Lillard to Rip City, while Okur was waived immediately after the deal.

After this Turkish player hitting waivers, he never played in the NBA again, ending his career at age 22.

If Okur never ruptured his Achilles, might he still be in the NBA? The league became full of floor-spacing big men as the 2010’s progressed, which could have kept Okur around as a spot-up shooting in his late 30’s. A team like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the San Antonio Spurs may have used him in this role, giving him 10-15 minutes per game to provide an extra shooter.

Next: Chauncey Billups

AUBURN HILLS, MI – NOVEMBER 3: Chauncey Billups
AUBURN HILLS, MI – NOVEMBER 3: Chauncey Billups

5. Chauncey Billups

Chauncey Billups will be known as one of the most clutch players of the 2000’s, with the nickname “Mr. Big Shot.” He provided this role for a handful of teams, most notably the Detroit Pistons in six-and-a-half seasons.

Billups remained remarkably consistent until his age 35 season, averaging 15 points per game with the Los Angeles Clippers. That lasted 20 games, as he tore his Achilles tendon and became a missed part of the Clipper teams that featured Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.

Billups returned for 22 games in the 2012-13 season, and shot 36 percent from 3-point range and shot 93 percent from the free throw line. His percentages were better than the previous year’s, with the number beyond the arc slightly lower.

However, after leaving the Clippers for the Pistons, Billups struggled mightily. He shot just 30 percent in 19 games — 7 of which were starts — and suffered knee injuries that caused him to retire after the 2013-14 season.

Billups’ career may have been winding down before the Achilles injury, but it only shortened his final seasons. He still managed to shine in multiple destinations and have his number retired in Detroit, though.

Next: Elton Brand

CHARLOTTE, NC – APRIL 1: Elton Brand
CHARLOTTE, NC – APRIL 1: Elton Brand

4. Elton Brand

From 1999-2007, Elton Brand played as one of the top power forwards in the NBA. Most of it came with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that rarely succeeded in the 2000’s. They had quality players come through like Cuttino Mobley and Corey Maggette, but the team consistently struggled.

Brand was the biggest bright spot, but saw his prime wasted on underachieving teams, as he averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds per game from his age 22 to 27 seasons.

At age 28, in the 2007-08 season, Brand played just 8 games, due to a torn Achilles tendon. It was a discouraging downfall for one of the top power forwards in the NBA.

In the following offseason, Brand joined the Philadelphia 76ers. He never put up a double-double average again, but had respectable seasons in 2009-10 and 2010-11, having around 14 points and 7 rebounds.

After leaving Philadelphia at age 33, Brand became a role player for two teams. It came with fewer minutes, so it’s difficult to say it was due to the Achilles injury. His Per 36 Minutes numbers declined slightly with the 76ers, but became more apparent at 33, which isn’t early for a decline but maybe for a substantial one.

Next: Isiah Thomas

INGLEWOOD, CA – JUNE 13: Isiah Thomas
INGLEWOOD, CA – JUNE 13: Isiah Thomas

3. Isiah Thomas

Isiah Thomas goes down as one of the greatest point guards of all time. His run from 1981-94 including double-double season averages and 12 All-Star Game appearances.

To top it off, Thomas was the featured player on two NBA championship teams with the Detroit Pistons, the team he also spent his entire career with. It led to a 2000 Hall of Fame induction, too.

As Thomas went into his early 30’s, he dealt with a series of nagging injuries. However, the unfortunate icing on the cake was a ruptured Achilles at the end of the 1993-94 season, one that saw him play just 56 games.

It turned one to be the last time anyone would see Thomas play another NBA game, as he retired in 1994. This became public knowledge before he suffered the Achilles injury.

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In 2013, Thomas explained the injury to InsideLocal.com:

I remember I was driving left on the baseline and I went to push off and it felt like someone kicked me right in the calf and I remember pulling up and stopping and hopping. I looked at the referee as if to say, ‘Didn’t you see that? Didn’t you see that?’ (laughs).

Of course, there was no one who kicked you. As I went to put my foot down, I knew something was terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a graceful end for Thomas, who went out hobbling off the court. So there’s no fallout for how he recovered from the injury and what he went on to produce in the NBA.

Next: Dominique Wilkins

SACRAMENTO, CA – 1993: Spud Webb
SACRAMENTO, CA – 1993: Spud Webb

2. Dominique Wilkins

The history of Achilles injuries rarely go in a positive direction, but that changed with Dominique Wilkins. He ruptured it in the 1991-92 season.

Before the injury, Wilkins produced seven full seasons of 25-plus points per game, as one of the top scorers in the NBA. His ability on the offensive end rivaled some of the best in the league and led to consistent All-Star Game appearances.

After the Achilles injury, Wilkins returned like nothing happened. He posted 29.9 points per game in the 1992-93 season, keeping his All-Star status up and continuing it into 1993-94.

By the 1994-95 season, Wilkins’ numbers began to slump. Was that due to the Achilles injury? It’s difficult to tell, as he was already 35-years-old and spent the past 12 years in the NBA. However, his play didn’t fall off as quickly as the others that suffered this ailment.

Wilkins’ name potentially gets forgotten among the players that suffered Achilles injuries since he recovered okay from it. However, there’s a recent big name that didn’t have the same luck.

Next: Kobe Bryant

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 13: Kobe Bryant
LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 13: Kobe Bryant

1. Kobe Bryant

From 1999-2013, Kobe Bryant looked like one of the greatest players in NBA history. He won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, claimed an NBA MVP award and led the league in scoring twice. The accolades go beyond that, which lasted until the middle of April 2013.

On April 13, Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon a short time before the 2013 NBA playoffs began. It was coming off a 27.3 point per game season, with a 46.3 field goal percentage, his highest number in four years.

For a player like Bryant, at age 34, he had the potential to look like the same player, even with a smaller average in points and field goal percentage. It didn’t result in that way, though, when Kobe played three more seasons in the NBA.

In those final years, the five-time champion played a total of 107 games. It came with multiple injuries, including one to his knee in the 2013-14 season that limited him to just six games. He totaled just 35 in the 2014-15 season as well.

Next: Ranking the Spurs' 2017 offseason moves

Bryant played one more season in the league, and put up just a 35 percent mark from the field, along with 28 percent from the 3-point line. He called it a career after a disappointing season with the Lakers, as they never made the playoffs after the Achilles injury (and still haven).

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