Get all of Ben Golliver's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
As the dust settles, here’s a rundown of the winners and losers from the first 11 days of the opening round, with an eye towards the reopened championship race.
Winner: LeBron James
There are two timelines to consider when it comes to Stephen Curry’s MCL sprain. First, there’s the official recovery timetable, released Monday, which estimated that he could return in roughly two weeks. Then there is a second timeline: How long does it take for Curry and the Warriors to fully recapture their 73–win, damn–near–unbeatable form?
It’s possible, of course, that Curry returns on schedule, reenters the rotation and can’t reclaim his MVP flow. Honestly, he was shooting so exquisitely and captaining such a precise attack before his health setbacks that it’s almost unfair to expect him to flip that switch in May or June, especially when he’ll be facing top–level competition in a series format. This isn’t an unnecessarily cautious take: Curry vastly exceeded his career-high in scoring this season, he smashed the NBA record for three–pointers, he put together the most impressive 50/40/90 shooting season of all time and he spent roughly five straight months “in the zone.” Now he’s on the sideline watching with a murky understanding of when he’ll be ready to rock again. That’s seriously jarring.
Curry’s first timeline will be a major concern for Golden State’s second–round opponent (Clippers or Blazers) and, should the defending champs advance, their conference finals opponent (Spurs or Thunder). For LeBron James and the Cavaliers, however, it’s Curry’s second timeline that truly matters.
Remember that James lost his last two Finals against opponents who blew his teams off the court with overwhelming chemistry. Who could forget Game 3 of the 2014 Finals, when the Spurs started Boris Diaw and scored a stunning 71 first–half points to shock the Heat? And who could forget Game 4 of the 2015 Finals, when the Warriors started Andre Iguodala and rolled to a 21–point road win over the Cavaliers? This season, Golden State holds comfortable advantages over Cleveland in all the major categories—wins, point differential, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency—and Curry outpaced James in all the major advanced statistical categories. The champs swept the season series, to boot. At full strength, it’s hard to make the case, on paper, that the Cavaliers are capable of upsetting the Warriors.
But there’s just no guarantee that those Warriors return and James stands to be the biggest beneficiary of Curry’s uncertainty. If Golden State can’t withstand Curry’s absence, or if it can’t compete with San Antonio (in the most likely scenario), James’s path to his first title in Cleveland is significantly easier. If Golden State does survive the West, James at least gets the benefit of knowing Curry isn’t on an eight–month magic carpet ride and it may be easier for Cleveland to junk up the Finals and/or keep up in a small ball shootout if Curry isn’t firing on all cylinders.
James isn’t only a winner because of Curry’s adversity. On the contrary, everything has been coming up wine and gold over the last two weeks. Cleveland survived some early scares to sweep Detroit 4-0, the rest of the East is busy beating itself up in extended series, and Miami, which appeared to be the conference’s best shot at unseating Cleveland after two big wins over Charlotte, looked far more mortal when that series shifted.
After a 2015 playoff run that resembled a minefield—complete with multiple injuries to stars and David Blatt–related tension, among other issues—James’s Cavaliers are truly off to a dream start in 2016.
As a postscript, James should be regarded as a winner for one more reason: his unbelievable durability. The fluky nature of Curry’s knee injury and Chris Paul’s hand injury this week served as reminders that a team’s championship hopes can be altered by something as random as a wet spot on the court or a misplaced swipe at the ball. James, however, is impervious to random calamities. During a postseason career that dates back to the 2006 playoffs, James has never missed a playoff game for any reason. He’s led the league in playoff minutes five times, he’s averaged 42.5 MPG in 182 postseason games over 11 years, he’s made five straight trips to the Finals, he’s been on the receiving end of an untold number of hard fouls, and he’s battled vicious legs cramps— but he’s always been there for his teams. James has been such a permanent fixture that it’s easy even for the most attentive observers to overlook the scope of his accomplishments. Salute.