By the time Kevin Durant celebrated his first NBA title and clutched his first Finals MVP trophy last June, a knee sprain that had nearly ended his season prematurely was already an afterthought. The Warriors’ near-invincibility throughout a 16-1 jaunt through the playoffs had all but erased the vulnerability and anxiety that accompanied Zaza Pachulia’s awkward fall onto Durant’s leg in late-February.
On the most basic level, history has repeated itself. Golden State lost one of its MVPs, Stephen Curry, to a friendly-fire knee injury on Friday, a grade-2 MCL sprain that will reportedly sideline him for at least three weeks. Once again, a demoralizing, late-season injury, this time caused by JaVale McGee, will serve as an equalizing force, weakening the Warriors’ grip on the title and granting renewed hope to their fellow contenders.
But the differences between these two injuries and the surrounding circumstances are more telling than the similarities. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely that Curry’s injury will fizzle from view as Durant’s did one year ago. Rather, Curry’s absence, rehabilitation, and eventual return will almost certainly come to define the 2018 playoffs. Will he emerge as the savior that preserves Golden State’s budding dynasty? Or, will his health again send the Warriors down the “What if…” path that swallowed up their 73–win season in 2016?
For starters, there’s the timing. Durant injured his knee in the 60th game of last season on Feb. 28. He missed 19 games, returning to the court on April 8 for Golden State’s final three regular-season games. Curry, by contrast, went down in the 68th game of the season on March 23, less than three weeks before the Warriors’ season finale on April 10. Even in a best-case scenario, Curry’s absence will likely push into the playoffs, granting him little runway for a ramp-up.
The comparison only gets bleaker from there. Durant had missed just one game prior to his knee injury last season; Curry has already missed 17 games due to multiple ankle injuries. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all enjoyed excellent health last year; In recent weeks, Thompson, Durant and Green have all battled injury issues. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Warriors to enter the playoffs with the genuine positive momentum they mustered last April.
Crucially, the Warriors were accustomed to playing without Durant last season because he was still the new guy and because they had won a title without him. One could argue that it was harder for the Warriors to ask Curry to scale back his offense to accommodate Durant’s arrival than it was to ask him to scale up when Durant was sidelined. Indeed, Curry averaged 26.9 PPG, 7.8 APG and 4.8 RPG and led the Warriors to a 15-4 record during Durant’s absence.
Even if the Warriors had Durant, Thompson and Green fully healthy right now, it would be unreasonable to expect them to duplicate those results in Curry’s absence. The Warriors’ offense is built around Curry and they’re used to having him on the court. Prior to this season, Curry had missed just 16 games over the past five seasons combined. When he enjoyed good health in the 2015 and 2017 playoffs, they won titles. When he appeared limited by a knee injury during the 2016 playoffs, they fell to the Cavaliers in stunning fashion.
This season, Golden State has been merely good without Curry, compiling an 13–8 record and a +2.5 point differential in games that he’s missed. For reference, that drops the Warriors into a similar class with many of the West’s second-tier teams.
2017-18 Point Differential
• Spurs: +3.3
• Thunder: +3.3
• Jazz: +3.1
• Blazers: +2.8
• Warriors without Curry: +2.5
• Timberwolves: +2.4
What’s more, as in previous seasons under coach Steve Kerr, Golden State’s offense has fallen from record-shattering to average when Curry has left the court.
Warriors’ Offensive Efficiency with and without Stephen Curry
• 2018: With Curry: 120.4 | Without Curry: 106.2
• 2017: With Curry: 118.1 | Without Curry: 102.4
• 2016: With Curry: 116.7 | Without Curry: 102.9
• 2015: With Curry: 114.2 | Without Curry: 100.2
The Warriors’ mark with Curry would lead the league by a mile. Their mark without him would rank No. 16. That gap was on display during a Curry-less stretch in December, when the Warriors were forced to grind out a series of (relatively) ugly wins.
From a personnel standpoint, Golden State’s options at point guard are less than ideal. Quinn Cook, an undrafted two-way contract player, has been deployed as a stand-in starter. Otherwise, Kerr must turn to his frontcourt stars (Durant and Green) or his reserves (Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala) for offense initiation. This should raise some alarms, given that Golden State’s defensive intensity has also been lacking compared to previous seasons. The Warriors still boast a very good defense with an elite ceiling—ranking sixth—but they just haven’t been as dominant or as focused.
The Warriors will need to flip the switch hard in the playoffs considering the developing picture around them. Last year, they comfortably claimed the No. 1 seed despite Durant’s injury, enjoying a soft first-round match-up against the 41-win Blazers followed by a favorable second-round match-up against the inexperienced Jazz.
This year, the Warriors have already ceded the top seed to the Rockets, and their path back to the Finals looks to be significantly more difficult. Their potential opponents in a 2–7 match-up include the Spurs, Timberwolves and Jazz, all of whom are currently on pace for 46+ wins. To make matters worse, all three of those teams could have been 50+ win teams and claimed the West’s No. 3 seed if not for injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Rudy Gobert, respectively. While Golden State didn’t truly need Durant until last year’s second round, the Warriors without a fully healthy Curry will be thoroughly tested in round one.
Golden State’s worst-case scenario is a true nightmare. Here’s one potential gauntlet: the Warriors face the Spurs with Leonard back in the first round, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in round two, and then the high-powered Rockets in the West finals. San Antonio’s defense would ugly up the game and likely dictate the pace of that match-up. Oklahoma City’s size has presented problems for Golden State this season, and Curry’s offensive impact is the best counter to Westbrook’s physicality and relentlessness. Meanwhile, Houston is arguably better than any team Golden State faced during the 2017 playoffs, including Cleveland. The Warriors might have to survive all three teams just for the right to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Finals.
For Curry individually, this injury threatens to bump him back to the All-NBA Third Team or perhaps even off the ballot entirely. As The Crossover noted last week, there are seven strong candidates for the six guard positions this year: Curry, Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and Kyrie Irving. If Curry doesn’t return prior to the playoffs, he will have played in 51 games, the fewest among that crop of candidates. Even Irving, who is set to miss 3-6 weeks with his own knee injury, has appeared in 60.
The longer-term implications will weigh even more heavily. With a title and a Finals MVP award this year, Curry has a chance to solidify his place among the greatest point guards of all time. But if his injury plays a role in the Warriors missing out on a title that was long assumed to be theirs, his legacy would carry the “What could have been…” burden of two lost championships. Fairly or not.
Curry held his head in his hands on the bench after McGee crashed into him, the picture of a man who couldn’t believe that his season was unexpectedly in jeopardy due to a fluky play in a meaningless contest. Much like last season with Durant, the day-after diagnosis proved that Curry had avoided total disaster. Given what lies ahead for the two-time MVP and his Warriors teammates, though, the news hardly qualifies as a relief.