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For most teams, it takes a colossal confluence of events to come into play, in sequence, for them to win a title. A perfect storm has to occur with just the right timing to open the door to a championship.
The Golden State Warriors have always been a little different, ever since they stunned the Denver Nuggets in their first-round upset in 2013, and especially since Steve Kerr walked in the door in the summer of 2014 and reshaped not only a team and a franchise, but the way basketball is played. In the three seasons since, they’ve failed to win the title once, and that came amid the same kind of storm most squads need to win one.
A poor shooting series from Klay Thompson. The Block. Kyrie’s shot. Draymond Green’s controversial suspension.
But more than anything, it was Stephen Curry’s knee sprain. Give the Cavaliers credit, stand in awe of the greatest comeback in NBA history and maybe the most remarkable title ever. But you cannot deny that Curry was never the same after suffering a sprained knee in the first round vs. Houston, and nothing shaped the team’s performance more.
People forget that the knee sprain wasn’t the first injury Curry suffered in that series against the Rockets. He sprained his ankle, an injury that will always send shivers down the spine of Warriors fans after Curry’s issues early in his career. He returned in Game 4 vs. the Rockets, helping Golden State establish — you guessed it — a 3-1 lead. But in doing so he slipped on a wet spot created by Donatas Motiejunas near mid-court.
Curry was out two weeks, and returned vs. the Blazers. It seemed he would etch his name in playoff history after this incredible performance, capped by the signature “I’m back” moment.
But Curry wasn’t the same. Against the Thunder, he was crowded on switches by Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, a tactic the San Antonio Spurs had found effective in the regular season with LaMarcus Aldridge. Curry wasn’t able to create the tiny fractions of space he needs to get his shot off cleanly, and his release just wasn’t as clean.
In the Finals, it happened more and more. Curry’s numbers were still good; they always are. But comparatively speaking, his 22.6 points and just 3.7 assists per game in the 2016 Finals weren’t awe-inspiring the way his regular season was from start to finish. And then, of course, there was this:
A perfect storm, culminating in the greatest collapse in Finals history, as the Warriors became the first team to win 73 games, and the first team to win 70-plus games and not win the title, in NBA history.
Flash forward to Friday night. Curry has been plagued by ankle problems all season. He was making his return, his first game back, when JaVale McGee, chasing a block he was never going to make as he has done for the entirety of his career, landed awkwardly and fell right into Curry:
Curry was diagnosed with a knee sprain and would not return. The official diagnosis came down on Saturday afternoon: Grade 2 MCL sprain that will be re-evaluated in three weeks.
WHAT IT MEANS
First off, take a second and realize that this is a human being who suffered an injury to a knee ligament. In the best-case scenario, he will miss multiple weeks when he knows his teammates need him, and will deal with pain and frustration. This is part of the deal for athletes, and we can talk about it in that context. But do yourself a favor and maintain that awareness that, person to person, this sucks for Wardell Stephen Curry.
Secondly, in the short-term, this means nothing. The Warriors have a magic number of one to clinch a top-two seed, and they’re not catching the Rockets. They’re the 2-seed. They can shut down the rest of the starters for the rest of the regular season and pretty much land the same spot.
The concern, obviously, is the playoffs.
Let’s break this down in bullets:
- Jeff Stotts at InStreetClothes.com shared that the typical recovery time for a Grade 2 sprain is six weeks. The Warriors are re-evaluating for three weeks. That doesn’t mean it’ll be more than three weeks, it also doesn’t mean it’ll be three weeks flat, which is the start of the playoffs. There’s a wide range of outcomes there.
- It’s good news for the league that he’s likely to be back in the playoffs, obviously. Otherwise, it would have put an asterisk on the season. You can make a credible argument that Houston could get past the Warriors with a healthy Curry. But he fundamentally changes what they’re capable of to such a degree that sadly, if the Warriors didn’t win the title with Curry on the shelf, it would always be talked about as “that (other) year Curry got hurt.” That’s just the reality. Whoever wins the title would have won a championship, and no one can take that away, and everyone has years where they deal with injuries, but the Warriors’ stature and profile are such that both will be perceived very differently if Curry doesn’t return.
- In the meantime, let’s say Curry misses the max reasonable, six weeks, pushing him back to the second week of May, which would be about midway through the second round. Golden State will have to take it step by step, but there’s reason to think the Warriors should be more cautious than eager with his return unless they fall into a deep hole. Give him the extra week, have him return for the Western Conference Finals, and hope he looks more like himself than he did in 2016 when he came back — outside of that one Blazers game.
- Here is the most crucial part of this analysis: the Warriors are NOT done without Curry. Assuming Kevin Durant is back and healthy from his rib injury (and Klay Thompson recovers from his fractured thumb), the Warriors’ floor is high enough to get them past the first round. The Western Conference is filled with really good teams, but any squad they would face in the first round is going to be flawed in ways that their lowest form can get over.
- This is honestly why Durant is so important for the team. When Durant is out but the rest of the crew is healthy, the Warriors can still Warrior, chucking up 3s and playing frenetically like they did in 2016 on their way to the most wins in NBA history. But when one of his fellow All-Stars is out, Durant can cover and make up for it. There have been so many games where the Warriors’ explosive chemistry, signature style and/or reality-warping shot-making was absent, and it came down to “Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant.” He enables the team to play to its opponent and then he just hits a series of tough shots, puts up a huge 30-plus-point game and that’s it. In other words, the Warriors can play badly, relative to their standards, and still win — because they have Kevin Durant.
- Curry, conversely, raises the ceiling. He has the best point differential on-court in the league for a reason. He takes the Warriors from “a really great team in a history of really great NBA teams” to “something we’ve never seen before and may never see again.” When he’s locked in, the defense warps into a horrible version of what it wants to be, and is then shattered to pieces by both his shot-making and the subsequent opportunities it opens for others. The Warriors aren’t unstoppable with Curry — the Rockets have beaten them, and the Warriors have been more vulnerable than ever this season for a lot of reasons — but they are pretty close to it.
- So Golden State can get past the first round without Curry, if everyone’s healthy, and the Warriors can probably at least get to a close-out Game 6 without Curry in the second round. Portland/OKC/Minnesota/San Antonio/Utah all present challenges, but a Steph-less Warriors team can still play good enough defense and make enough shots to secure that conference finals spot.
- Even if Curry missed the first round, there’s reason to think with this diagnosis he’d be back by Game 3 of the second round at most. That could prove vital, especially with how Portland has played without him. There are just so man parallels to that 2016 season, but Durant is obviously the big differential.
- Can the Warriors beat Houston without Curry? I’m not sure. It depends on if the Rockets even get there. Houston has always existed in this weird nebulous state under Mike D’Antoni as being the biggest threat to the Warriors, but also way more likely to fall apart vs. San Antonio (especially if Leonard returns), or Oklahoma City, or whoever. If the Rockets show up in the playoffs and just blows doors off on their way to the Western Conference Finals, where they would have home-court advantage, and honestly, in that situation, more firepower than the Warriors? That’s a tall order for Golden State without Steph. I’m not counting the Warriors out, and I struggle, no kidding, with who should be favored if it’s Rockets vs. Steph-less Warriors. Houston has done everything it could do to convince us it deserves to be favored. But man, the Warriors have Durant, Green and Thompson. Either way, it’s very likely he’s back for that series, which would start almost a month past that three-week re-evaluation point.
- The Warriors have to win differently without Curry. It makes their defense that much more important, and it’s difficult for their offense to hit those levels where they just run over teams.
- It should be plainly obvious: The biggest key with Curry out is that the Warriors cannot afford another injury to anyone major. Green, Thompson, and obviously Durant cannot go down or that’s it. They’re good enough to survive their most impactful player going down with an injury (which is insane), but not two of the Big 4.
- Finally, and this narrative has gone under the radar, the Warriors’ bench is really mediocre. They have the third-best net rating league-wide, but so much of that is propped up by their starters mixed in. In a playoff series, those issues could stand out without Curry. Patrick McCaw has the worst net rating on the team two years in a row, and Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are trying to hold it together while getting another year older.To sum up: The Warriors can still win the title, will probably make at least second round, might be favored in the conference finals depending on what happens, but the road is obviously way tougher with every game he’s out for the playoffs.
We saw early in the season that the Warriors were consistently hitting the under without Curry. The under was 8-3 in December with Curry out, but 0-2 in this most recent stretch without him. It might be worth tracking to see if the oddsmakers have adjusted to how the offense is impacted with Curry out.
THE BIG PICTURE
We’ll know more once Curry is re-evaluated in three weeks, but the range of outcomes here is startling. Even if most people will apply an asterisk if Curry’s out for the playoffs and another team wins, it does open the door for a team to win a title that isn’t Golden State, a wild concept from where we were to start the year. It opens the possibility of this Golden State core having only two of four potential titles, and one of two with Durant.
Conversely, it opens the door for Curry to come back in the playoffs and prove just how valuable he is (which the metrics have always indicated), or if he’s out, for Durant to lead the Warriors to a title as the unquestioned No. 1 guy, which would significantly raise his stature in both legacy and current best player conversation. And on the outside of all this, there’s LeBron James, with a potential window to slide in and sneak out another title.
So much could change because of Friday night, all because JaVale McGee went for a block he was never going to get. It’s always a perfect storm, and even the greatest teams aren’t invincible against the lightning strikes of fate.